‘The cost of doing nothing is far too high:’ Gov. Evers celebrates Earth Day with creation of Office of Environmental Justice

MILWAUKEE — In remarks written for the 25th anniversary of Earth Day in 1995, former Wisconsin governor Gaylord Nelson asked a simple question: “Do we who are here today owe anything to future generations of people and other living things?”

More than 25 years later, Gov. Tony Evers answered by announcing the creation of the Office of Environmental Justice at the Wisconsin Department of Administration. Created via executive order, the office will work alongside the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy to promote collaboration between state agencies and push for environmental policies that ensure every Wisconsinite has clean water to drink and fresh air to breathe.

The office will also be tasked with talking with stakeholders and organizations throughout the state who represent groups that face a greater risk from environmental threats.

“Far too often communities of color and low-income communities are forced to live, work and play near sources of pollution, leading to poor health outcomes,” Evers said. “We cannot ignore the role environmental justice plays in building a state where every family in every zip code can be successful.”

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The newly formed office was initially proposed in the final report from Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change and later included in Evers’ 2021-23 biennial budget proposal, but it was ultimately removed from the final budget by the GOP-led legislature.

During a Friday press conference at Indian Community School in Franklin, Evers said he’s creating the office anyway.

The office will be led by a Director of Environmental Justice who will oversee operations and environmental justice work. It’ll also receive support from a chief resilience officer who will work to assist local government and Tribal Nation leaders with implementing climate resilience programs and projects in their respective communities.

The office will work with the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy, which was created by executive order three years ago.

The director for the sustainability office Maria Redmond said environmental justice is about assuring people are actively engaged.

“Historically our tribal nations or indigenous communities Black, Hispanic, Latino, Hmong-American, Asian-American, a lot of communities of color, are not participating,” she said. “We need to go to their tables and understand what their communities are dealing with.”

“The climate crisis has taken an undeniable toll on the people of our state,” Evers said. “Every Wisconsinite — whether they live in the driftless area of the state, or the central sands, or the Northwoods, or in the heart of our urban areas — has experienced the impact of climate change. Over the last few years, increased flooding, tornadoes, high winds, blizzards and other severe weather events — caused in large part by climate change — have cost Wisconsin communities and businesses and farmers and families just absolute millions of dollars.”

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In addition to the new positions within the newly formed office, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will add an environmental justice policy advisor to its staff to work with the Office of Environmental Justice.

Citing former Gov. Nelson’s work to launch Earth Day in 1970 and the state’s long history as a leader in conservation, Evers said he and his administration are determined to make Wisconsin a national leader once again.

“At the end of the day, the cost of doing nothing is far too high, and we can’t ignore the reality facing communities across our state any longer,” Evers said. “Addressing climate change doesn’t mean leaving behind our state’s history or our traditions; in fact, it is that very history and that very tradition that demands that we move forward.”

Read Gov. Evers’ full executive order here.