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Keith Reopelle

Keith Reopelle, the first director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change, called climate change the "biggest environmental challenge of this century."



Dane County’s first ever Office of Energy and Climate Change is up and running with Keith Reopelle at the helm as director.

Reopelle comes to the position with 32 years of experience at Clean Wisconsin, where he was most recently the senior policy director. While there, he led clean energy campaigns at the state and regional levels.

“My whole career has been in environmental protection, but climate change specifically, I think, is the biggest environmental challenge of this century,” Reopelle said.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi created the office and corresponding Council on Climate Change, comprised of many private and public partners, in his 2017 budget to implement climate change strategies.

Reopelle is leading the creation of a Climate Action Plan, which will look like a series of policies, programs and projects. After the report is adopted, Reopelle will oversee the implementation of the plan.

“Our goal is to make Dane County a national and world leader in not only reducing carbon pollution but also reducing carbon pollution in a way that has direct economic and health benefits to all citizens of Dane County,” Reopelle said.

Reopelle is also tasked with looking at the greenhouse gas condition profile of other other Dane County departments to help the county find ways to reduce its own carbon emissions. The county has already taken steps to reduce the effects of climate change including fueling its fleet with compressed natural gas and investing in solar energy.

Dane County’s efforts to lead the way on climate change efforts is part of what attracted Reopelle to the job, he said.

“Under County Executive Parisi, Dane County has made tremendous strides in investing in clean renewable technology,” Reopelle said. “I knew with that kind of leadership, this would be a great place for me.”

What makes you passionate about this work?

The biggest reason, I think, is the fact that I have two daughters: one just done with college and one is finishing up. Really, climate change is so much more important now — the rain storms this spring are a dramatic example of that — but obviously, our children and their children are going to be hit much harder by climate change.

It’s really imperative we take big steps now to head off climate change because if we don't, we’re going to be leaving our children and future generations a world that is not nearly as healthy and safe as the one that we live in now. That’s the thing that really should motivate all of us to do something about climate change.

It just seems imperative, and it seems crazy to put short-term economic interests of industries like the fossil fuel industry ahead of our children’s future.

What are some effects of climate change Dane County is seeing?

There’s a lot of them but certainly flooding and the economic cost that go with flooding in terms of everything from having to get water out of your basement, like so many people on the west side of Madison have had to do this spring. The fact that we have had multiple four-and five-inch rain events over the course of a couple of months is really unheard of historically, but we should get used to it because that’s going to happen more and more often. That is absolutely a result of climate change basically the warmer the climate the the more moisture the atmosphere holds and the bigger rain events.

Air quality: there’s a big adverse health impact in terms of the air quality as a result of climate change. Warmer summer days result in more ozone formation and ozone smog.

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Droughts will become more common as well. We’ll get more heavy rain events. We’ll get more frequent storms with more rain in each of those storms, but we’ll also experience longer period of time without rain particularly in the summer months

Deterioration in lakes: We’ve seen more blue green algae blooms. The rainfall events basically lead to nutrient loading into the lakes and rivers in Dane County and that results in higher algae blooms and more weed growth, and it makes it unhealthy to swim in our lakes and so unpleasant to swim in our lakes.

We’re going to see more rain in the winter, more freezing rain and more icy conditions.

Will the Climate Action Plan make a difference or are we past the point of no return?

If we don't aggressively start taking steps to get there, we will not only have to take those steps later but probably also spend many trillions of dollars to mechanically pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Yes, Dane County has done a lot already. In a relative sense to what needs to be done, it is a tiny bit. That’s why this climate action plan we’re coming up with … needs to put us on a path to deep carbon pollution reductions. We simply have to get on that path. The sooner we get on that path, the sooner the other 71 counties in Wisconsin are likely to follow.

Has the politicized outlook on climate change affected your mindset in addressing it?

It’s very unfortunate that climate change and the science of climate change has become politicized to the extent that it has. In the long run, I’m very confident that it’s not going to make much difference, and the reason I say that is that Dane County has been a leader and will be much more of a leader a year from now, five years from now.

The other reason I say I’m very confident the politics in the end aren’t going to make a difference is industry itself and citizens themselves are going to take action. The world understands that climate change is real. This is happening. The markets understand that climate change is real and is happening. Industries understand.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.