Recent heat waves underscore the urgency of climate technology investment

A version of this article by La Follette School Assistant Professor Morgan Edwards and Nelson Institute master’s student Zachary Thomas will be published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Ideas Lab as part of the Main Street Agenda project.

The sun sets over a city

Last week Wisconsin saw the first big heat wave of the summer, with temperatures reaching 94 degrees Fahrenheit in Milwaukee. And it wasn’t just Wisconsin. 86 million people were under heat alerts across the U.S. Thousands have died of heat stress across Asia and Europe, including in the hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.  

The science is clear. Climate change is making deadly heat waves more likely. What is also clear is that the public knows this. Findings from a 2023 survey by WisconSays and the La Follette School of Public Affairs suggest 61 percent of Wisconsinites consider climate change to be quite a problem or an extremely big problem for the country. Climate change is increasingly a bipartisan issue. After years of polarization around the topic, just three percentage points separate Democrats and Republicans according to the survey. The concern cuts across generations as well. Wisconsin youth are most concerned, with 70 percent of adults 18 to 30 thinking climate change is quite a problem or an extremely big problem for the country. However, nearly two-thirds of residents over 60 also feel this way.

To tackle the climate crisis, we need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions – and fast. Many Wisconsinites also agree. According to another poll conducted by the La Follette School in 2022, 76 percent of Wisconsin residents strongly support or somewhat support taxing industries to remove industrial waste and 70 percent feel the same way about doubling the amount of electricity to come from renewables.  

But on top of reducing carbon pollution and investing in clean energy, we will also need to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Traditionally, conventional methods like tree planting and forest restoration have done the heavy lifting when it comes to carbon dioxide removal, but a variety of novel technologies are also starting to gain traction. 

Profile photo of Morgan Edwards
Morgan Edwards

Wisconsinites are less sure about these methods. While 60 percent are at least somewhat supportive of helping pay for new technologies to directly remove carbon dioxide, only 23 percent are strongly supportive – half the number that support taxing polluting industries or investing in renewable electricity. In fact, among the climate policies we polled, Wisconsinites were particularly ambivalent about carbon dioxide removal, with two-thirds neither strongly supporting or opposing the policy. One reason may be that while some carbon dioxide removal methods – like planting trees – are well known, others – like using machines that capture carbon dioxide and store it underground – are not.  

We are working with an international team of researchers to close this knowledge gap. Earlier this month, we released an update to the State of Carbon Dioxide Removal report to take stock of what we know about these methods and what we don’t. The report included over 50 authors from around the world with key contributions from the La Follette School – including us as well as Professor Greg Nemet and students Jenna Greene and Andrew Zaiser. 

Our team found that we may need to quadruple the amount of carbon dioxide we remove from the atmosphere by mid-century if the world is to limit warming at the end of the century in line with the landmark Paris Agreement. To date, conventional land use methods have done most of the work, while novel methods account for less than 0.1 percent of what gets removed from the atmosphere.  

Researchers here at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are working to close the gap. For example, Rob Anex from Biological Systems Engineering is leading a team to convert CO2 captured directly from the air into building materials. The group was a finalist in the XPRIZE competition to spur the development of carbon dioxide removal technologies.  

Zachary Thomas

Compared to conventional methods, companies developing novel methods like direct air capture are the fastest-growing recipients of public and private funding. But start-ups face bottlenecks as they grow and scale. Our research shows that a combination of public policies and support from different types of private investors – from corporations to traditional venture capital – is key to overcoming these challenges. 

There is a lot that public policy can do to incentivize climate tech in Wisconsin and beyond. Many talented people are working to develop new technologies and could use support from coordinated policies. While grants are an obvious form of support, others like advance agreements to purchase the products start-ups create and knowledge sharing among startups and larger companies are also important.  

The Federal government is also making major investments in clean energy and climate technologies. This funding is supporting everything from public infrastructure projects like renewable energy projects and public electric vehicle chargers to rebates on heat pumps and rooftop solar. In Wisconsin, 79 companies have already received millions of dollars in federal funding for energy projects. 

Focusing on local investment can empower communities here in Wisconsin by building regional supply chains and creating local green jobs. For example, the 43 companies supported by Evergreen Climate Innovations (a philanthropic climate tech impact investor based in Chicago), created 998 jobs in the Greater Midwest in 2023 alone. Among carbon dioxide removal technologies, Wisconsin may be particularly well-suited for bio-based technologies. These technologies could benefit from early policy support to incentivize new projects. 

Momentum for climate action here in Wisconsin is growing. The state’s ambitious clean energy plan, released in 2022, aims to put Wisconsin on a path to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2050. Milwaukee’s Climate and Equity Plan aims to cut local greenhouse emissions 45 percent by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2050. Similarly, Green Bay adopted their Clean Energy Plan in December, with goals of cutting carbon dioxide emissions by four percent each year toward carbon neutrality and 100 percent clean energy by 2050. 

This is good news because 63 percent of respondents to our 2022 survey said that the Wisconsin government could do more to address climate change. Heading into the 2024 election, we’ll be hearing more from Wisconsinites about issues that matter most to them through our Main Street Agenda. While there are many pressing issues in our state – from gun violence to inflation – concerns around climate change continue to grow. With ongoing heat waves, Wisconsin is feeling the effects of climate change closer to home. The good news is that the solutions can be there too. 

Morgan Edwards is an assistant professor with the La Follette School of Public Affairs at UW-Madison. She also leads the Climate Action Lab and holds an affiliation with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Her research and teaching focus on just energy responses to the climate crisis across policymaking scales.

Zachary Thomas is a graduate student in UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and member of the Climate Action Lab. His research examines how emerging climate technologies contribute to greenhouse gas emissions reduction.

Logo for the Main Street Agenda with the text, "what matters to Wisconsin, policy perspectives, presented by the La Follette School of Public Affairs in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel"What matters to Wisconsin

The La Follette School of Public Affairs and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel are collaborating to share insights on how Wisconsinites feel about important policy topics through a yearlong project called the Main Street Agenda. Each month, the La Follette School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel will feature a different policy topic, analyzing new statewide survey data to highlight what matters to Wisconsin. The WisconSays/La Follette Survey being used for the Main Street Agenda is a subset of the new WisconSays opinion panel based out of the UW-Madison Survey Center. There are more than 3,500 Wisconsinites enrolled in this representative panel.

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