The Janesville City Council voted in February to help fight climate change and save money.
A group of people from around the area who worked on that council resolution got together Thursday to talk about the complexities of doing both.
One thing was clear: Janesville will not be on its own. Other cities, government agencies and businesses are working on the problem, and Janesville is behind some, such as Eau Claire, speakers said.
“Never in our history has it been so clear to so many that we need to make a change,” said Megan Levy of the state Office of Energy Innovation.
The virtual Earth Day gathering was sponsored by the local League of Women Voters, the Welty Environmental Center and the Ice Age Trail Alliance.
One of the entities working on the problem is a huge producer of carbon dioxide: Alliant Energy. Alliant has set a goal of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2030 from 2005 levels, Alliant’s Jeff Hanson said.
The utility also is working to decommission coal-fired electricity plants by 2040 and to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 in its energy production.
Alliant’s investors and customers are calling for those changes, Hanson said.
“We’re putting all the chips into the middle of the table to figure out how to get there,” Hanson said. Among those chips is heavy investment in solar and wind energy.
The Janesville council’s resolution called for reaching carbon-neutral emissions by 2050.
Carbon dioxide is a major force in heating the atmosphere. The effects, scientists predict, include harsher storms, floods and droughts along with rising sea levels that could combine with the more intense weather events to change our way of life for the worse.
Hanson provided an example: a massive storm called a derecho that struck Alliant customers across Iowa last year. They’re still fixing damaged houses, he said.
City Operations Director Maggie Darr said one thing the city is considering is a solar farm atop closed portions of the city landfill.
The problem, Darr said, is cost. The city struggles each year to maintain its services while receiving less in state shared revenue than its peer cities. At the same time, state law limits how much municipalities can raise through property taxes.
Some new federal infrastructure spending could help, Darr said, but details of what the money could be used for are still lacking.
Dan Cunningham of Forward Janesville, the local chamber of commerce, said if Janesville can reach its goal, the city could use carbon neutrality to set itself apart in the ferocious competition to attract new employers.
Cunningham said he doesn’t know what Janesville companies are doing to lessen their carbon footprints, but he plans to survey members to find out.
“Obviously the business community is going to have to contribute to this to make the effort work,” Cunningham said.
Several speakers talked about small steps that could add up.
Dennis James of the Ice Age Trail Alliance said Janesville’s multiuse trails and its rebuilding of streets to include bicycle lanes encourage less driving—the biggest contributor of greenhouse gases—and more bicycle commuting.
Andy Stoltman of the Department of Natural Resources described Eau Claire’s program that sends cut-down trees to local companies that make things out of wood so the trees don’t end up getting chipped. The result, he said, are durable goods that store carbon for a long time—not to mention the idling of chippers that emit a lot of greenhouse gas, Levy added.
Janesville’s landfill and the city’s fleet of vehicles emit a lot of carbon dioxide, Darr noted. But cost is again an issue. Converting the city’s fleet to electric vehicles would cost money. The city does capture a portion of biogas emitted from the landfill but not all of it.
Cunningham said the city will have to increase the availability of electric car charging stations as the number of such cars goes up.
“It’s important to stay out ahead because we don’t want to be left behind in that,” he said.
Wes Enterline, sustainability director at UW-Whitewater and a Janesville resident, noted that UW-Platteville just installed a solar array. He said UW-W’s problem in the past year has been a lack of funding as a result of pandemic-driven enrollment decreases.
Darr said she understands that investments now could save energy and costs for future generations—but oh, those costs.
“We are kind of fighting for what programs we do have to consider cutting this year in order to make our budget balance,” Darr said. “Some of these long-term investments get put to the wayside, unfortunately.”
Darr got tips from forum participants on where grants might be found. The forum’s biggest impact might come from the information-sharing that occurred as speakers suggested grants and planning resources.
Stoltman, from the DNR, told of a proposed increase in the state budget for tree planting and a state map that shows the degree of tree cover in a city.
Trees provide shade, reducing energy consumption; absorb water that otherwise would run off into rivers or streams; and take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis.
Poorer parts of a city tend to have less “canopy,” as it is called, but the map could show officials where to target tree-planting efforts, Stoltman said.
Beloit College professor Ron Watson’s entire body shakes when police stop him for simple traffic incidents.
When Watson hears about another Black person dying at the hands of police officers, he said he sometimes has to take a mental health day to decompress.
The rightful fear Black people carry, caused by decades of racism, is among the stressors that can cause health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and infant mortality at disproportionate rates compared to white people, Watson said.
The relationship between public health and racism was the topic of this year’s Stand Against Racism Day, an annual campaign by the YWCA Rock County to build community, work toward racial justice and raise awareness of racism’s effects.
Thursday’s virtual event featured Watson and Ian Hedges, CEO of HealthNet of Rock County, as speakers.
During a Q&A with YWCA racial justice coordinator Amiee Leavy, Watson said the internalized stress caused by racism isn’t limited to one person. It can influence genetics, which can be passed down to children.
Watson is an associate professor of health and society and political science who works closely with public health initiatives.
He is also a father who worries about his own children when he thinks about police violence toward Black people and how it affects all people of color, even if they haven’t experienced it firsthand.
“As a parent, I, like, stop breathing,” he said.
Watson did not allow his children to play with water guns growing up because of incidents in which Black children were harmed because other people saw them playing with toy guns and reacted poorly or called police.
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police in Cleveland in 2014 after an officer saw him with a toy gun.
What’s especially scary for Watson, he said, is many medical professionals can contribute to poor treatment of people of color without realizing it.
Watson described studies that show white physicians often do not believe patients of color when they describe health symptoms. In addition, physicians might not prescribe a proper treatment plan because they assume people of color will not have the means to abide by the plan.
Such behaviors can be unintentional and are examples of implicit bias, he said.
Some physicians still hold false beliefs about people of color that are detrimental, Watson said. He described a study that showed medical students in disturbingly high numbers believe Black people have thicker skin than white people and therefore have a higher pain tolerance.
A belief like that could lead to a misdiagnosis or an improper prescription for pain medication, Watson said.
Hedges said racism is so prevalent that it has become a public health crisis across Rock County, the state and the country.
He called on the community to hold health care and human services officials accountable for fair and equitable treatment of all patients. Ongoing poor treatment of people of color by health officials has cultivated mistrust, he said.
Health care systems need to actively recruit people of diverse races and ethnic backgrounds for leadership roles, whether in administration or on boards of directors, Hedges said.
Those in the health and human services sector also have to reexamine their actions and biases, which, if done properly, could help communities become more equitable, Hedges said.
“Our words,” he said, “can have consequences.”
Kelly Wilson takes comfort in one true and powerful memory of her husband, James Arlen Wilson Jr., lovingly known as Jimmy.
Kelly is walking down the aisle of Janesville’s Church of Christ on her wedding day, Aug. 6, 1994.
She locks eyes with Jimmy, standing at the altar in his white tuxedo with tails and a flashy red vest with matching bow tie.
“The smile on his face is a memory I will always keep,” Kelly said between tears. “Jimmy was my world. He was my best friend.”
Fifty-year-old Jimmy died April 13 at his Janesville home. He most recently worked in maintenance at Garden Court Apartments.
Friends and family agree that the greatest joy of his life was marrying Kelly more than 25 years ago.
At age 24, Jimmy—a man with Down syndrome and a fierce trust in God—overcame obstacle after obstacle to take his place at the altar.
His mother, Jan Ripp Scott, remembers all the naysayers, beginning with Jimmy’s birth at the hospital.
“They wanted me to put him in an institution,” Ripp Scott said. “The doctor said Jimmy would be a nuisance to my life. Those were the exact words he used. I screamed at him to get out of my room and to never come back.”
From that point on, Ripp Scott embraced a favorite Scripture: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“I quoted that over Jimmy every day,” she said. “When people told him he couldn’t do something, I told him, ‘Yes you can.’”
At age 3, her child needed open heart surgery to fix three holes in his heart.
Doctors told Ripp Scott he would not live beyond age 9.
“Anything past 12 would be a miracle,” she recalled.
But on his wedding day, Jimmy’s heart beat firmly in love. He had stared at Kelly’s photos on his bedroom wall night after night before falling asleep. He had prayed often and hard with his mother for Kelly to become his wife.
Jimmy and his bride-to-be asked several pastors to marry them before they finally found one who agreed.
Some doubted if Jimmy could be a good husband, but Kelly knew from the start that they would be together until death.
“We were always there for each other,” Kelly said. “Jimmy helped me through so much. When I was depressed, he was there. When I was down about myself, he was there, even when I weighed 550 pounds. He loved me no matter what.”
Years after the couple married, they eagerly shared each other’s space, much like newlyweds. One of Jimmy’s favorite things was to hug Kelly and to proclaim to anyone listening: “That’s my wife!”
Rick Bailey, pastor at Calvary Tabernacle in Beloit where Jimmy and Kelly have attended church, called their marriage “quite an accomplishment in today’s world.”
“Their love for one another was deep,” Bailey said. “They definitely had a lasting impact on others, as well. They showed that, in the midst of difficult and challenging times, people who are in love can make it.”
Jimmy met Kelly in a church youth group when the two were teenagers, and he knew right away that she was the one.
“He came home from church that night and said, ‘Mama, I found my wife,’” Jan recalled.
Jimmy loved going to church.
At Calvary Tabernacle, he often clapped his hands and lifted them high during worship.
“We are a Pentecostal church, so our worship is expressive,” Pastor Bailey said. “Jimmy often stood near the front of the church. There was something inside him like a magnet that drew him to the front. He taught us a number of different lessons, including the value of worship.”
Jimmy also taught by example the power of forgiveness.
If people made negative comments about him, Jimmy never let it bother him, said his niece LaShanda Dykeman.
Instead, he responded with love.
“His strength, dignity and love was always there,” Dykeman said. “He didn’t judge people. No matter what was going on, he would tell Kelly, ‘I love you.’”
Dykeman called Jimmy her “go-to” on a bad day.
“If my day wasn’t going OK, he would make it OK,” she said. “He was my buddy. He had a big impact on my children. If my son said he couldn’t do something, Jimmy would say, ‘You can do it.’”
“I believe Jimmy was a legend, and his legacy will live on because that man created miracles.”
Geri Flood, Jimmy’s sister-in-law, said Jimmy had a way of bringing joy and love to everyone.
“No one will ever forget that man,” she said. “He was so special.”
In her last words to Jimmy, Geri promised to make sure that Kelly would be OK.
“They had unconditional love,” Geri said. “They were meant to be.”