Both / And

A recent New York Times article reported that legacy environmental organizations are increasingly prioritizing work on climate change—sometimes at the expense of longstanding programs to combat toxics and other threats to the environment and public health. 

This is understandable. Climate change represents an imminent threat to life on the planet. We need environmental groups to guide us toward a better future. If donors and foundations are emphasizing the climate, nonprofit organizations have little choice but to adjust. 

Clean Wisconsin appreciates the urgency of climate change. In October, we completed strategic planning and adopted a new mission statement acknowledging the centrality of climate change to the organization’s work today. But Clean Wisconsin’s new mission statement takes a “both/and” approach—fighting climate change and pollution. Doing both is important to us for several reasons: 

First, environmental contamination is too important to marginalize.  While landmark federal laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act have gone a long way towards addressing contamination over the last half century, the work never ends.   

For one thing, these laws are not self-enforcing; their implementation requires constant vigilance and enforcement. And—particularly important in Wisconsin—their application to agriculture is still a work in progress. 

What is more, we receive new data everyday about the harms of “emerging” contaminants like PFAS “forever chemicals”. And we continue to learn more about the health impacts of more notorious pollutants.  More often than not, we find that lower levels of exposure cause greater levels of harm than we knew. The flow of new information requires constant fixes to the existing legal armature—and sometimes new laws altogether.   

Make no mistake: toxics in our environment have devastating effects on human health and natural ecosystems. They sicken our children, blight our cities and poison our water.     

This all leads to my second point that not every community has the luxury of preparing for a threat that—despite increasingly frightening weather and news—can seem far off.  Some communities perceive threats to their existence right now. 

In our rural areas, hundreds of thousands of private wells are poisoned with nitrates from large animal farms and overfertilization of crops. Over half of all people of color in Wisconsin cities live within one mile of a facility that emits dangerous pollution into the air. Children in Milwaukee suffer from asthma and will live shorter lives due to air pollution from the high volume of automobiles passing through their neighborhoods. 

Finally, we don’t have to choose one or the other.  Our “natural climate solutions” initiative at Clean Wisconsin is premised on the notion that what’s good for soil health and water quality is usually good for the climate.  Our science department performs careful analyses to ensure that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Our Water and Agriculture Program works with farmers and agriculture interests to identify paths for both reducing the impacts of farming on our natural resources and combating climate change. Our energy team works on supporting clean energy development in ways that address both harmful air pollution and climate changing emissions. This balance of focus is core to our mission at Clean Wisconsin.  

In the months and years to come, you’ll see some big developments at Clean Wisconsin as we implement a bold strategic plan to increase our effectiveness and address an ever-expanding range of threats.  But one thing that will not change is our commitment to addressing both climate change and pollution.