It has been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and illuminated the urgent need to solve two of society’s most pressing challenges — climate change and inequity. We can take a step forward through MGE’s program of public and private forums around Madison to engage the community in discussions on our energy future — dubbed “Community Conversations” and scheduled to begin this fall.

Global warming has pressed on since 2005. This July, like June before it, was the hottest in recorded history. My children may very well live to the year 2100. If we don’t end use of fossil fuels this decade, Earth’s average temperature will likely rise 6 degrees Celsius in their lifetimethink 136 degrees Fahrenheit heat waves with a 170 degree Fahrenheit heat index.

The world’s leaders are only beginning to respond. President Barack Obama has made global warming a central focus as his term winds down. Pope Francis, a man of both science and faith, calls for renewable fuel subsidies and “maximum energy efficiency.” And private-sector actors have dramatically advanced clean energy generation and storage technologies.

During the same period since Katrina, income concentrations among the richest 1 percent of households have returned to 1920s levels. Wealth disparities along racial lines are as stark; according to Forbes, “the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.” Add to this the cruel reality that black people make up 40 percent of the United States' prison population while representing just 13 percent of the population as a whole. Poor communities of color have few resources and a shredded social fabric to protect against a warming world.

Civil rights activists righteously demand the nation’s attention. The Black Lives Matter movement has ensured that racial justice is a part of the 2016 presidential race. Locally, the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition has shut down traffic and stopped a county jail expansion. Justified Anger, an African-American-led movement, has begun work to transform local institutions from within.

With a backdrop of dangerous climate change and stunning social, economic and racial gaps, MGE pursued and won a rate change from Gov. Walker’s Public Service Commission in 2014. It was unsuccessfully challenged by the city of Madison, which argued the new rates would unfairly burden the poor and make the problem of greenhouse gas pollution worse. MGE customers pay the highest rates in Wisconsin for largely coal-powered electricity; this in a state in which heat waves have caused more deaths (216) than all other natural disasters combined. Imagine the fate of those unable to afford air conditioning in a not-too-distant future with dramatically longer and more frequent heat waves.

Though the city was unable to convince utility execs and state regulators to follow a more responsible course, we have another chance with MGE’s much-anticipated Community Conversations. 

A truly robust and meaningful discussion must necessarily include an emphasis on both environmental leadership and social equity, not just technical details like what fuels we rely on to power our homes. We can eliminate global warming pollution and cut the cost of energy through efficiency and an expanded renewable infrastructure. But we can go a step further to create a more equitable community as we build that new energy future. Much like Robert Pierce’s effort to introduce ex-offenders to farming, we can train and employ those struggling with poverty, drugs or a criminal record to remake our energy system. Those with the greatest need, who have been systematically marginalized, could be the very people to weatherize our homes, install solar panels and deploy batteries. This broader, more ambitious approach would have ramifications that go far beyond energy. It could mean jobs for the jobless, hope for the hopeless and safe harbor for all from the dangers of global warming.

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No doubt, a community effort like this will involve a community investment that goes beyond just MGE. Civic institutions including the city of Madison will need to step up too — exactly what so many of us want and expect the city to do.

We need the ingenuity and imagination of our entire diverse community to survive what lies ahead. Yet we continue to deny opportunities to so many of our neighbors. Climate change is right now. Inequality is right here. Madison, our time to act for a safer, cleaner more prosperous city for everyone is today.

Raj Shukla serves as chair of the city's Sustainable Madison Committee.

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