U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves met with local leaders and environmental clubs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Thursday to discuss climate concerns and solutions.
Graves planned his Wisconsin visit to look at the Department of Commerce’s local investments as part of President Joe Biden’s Investing In America agenda.
During Thursday’s event, hosted by UW-Madison senior and District 8 Ald. MGR Govindarajan, Graves outlined renewable energy subsidies and other investments with UW-Madison students to explain how the Biden administration hopes to mitigate climate change effects.
The Inflation Reduction Act became a hot topic at the table. This initiative provides $3.3 billion in funding for climate infrastructure through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is managed by the Department of Commerce.
Graves said the Inflation Reduction Act aims to protect young people, a group he described as stakeholders for the country’s future.
“You’re the taxpayers, and you’re the generation that will change the world, maybe more than any other generation that has come before, so we’re trying to set you up so that you can be empowered to do it,” Graves told students.
Although the federal government provides most of the funding for climate initiative investments, Graves and Govindarajan emphasized climate governance is primarily moderated at the local level
It’s important those grants get used correctly, they said.
“Guardrails are meant to make sure that [communities] are investing in ways that have an impact, that are equitable,” Graves said. “We want to make sure that those resources are able to be used in partnership with other resources, that we’re getting it out to every part of the country, not just a handful of communities.”
Govindarajan said advocacy groups and leaders are crucial in the climate policymaking process.
Evie Sellers, member of renewable energy advocacy student organization CLEAN, helped Govindarajan connect with other climate experts to write a sustainable platform for the City of Madison.
Govindarajan said CLEAN has helped push UW-Madison toward renewable energy commitments.
“You don’t sit in a room and write a platform based on your own opinions, Govindarajan said. “You can do that, you do have to stand for your own personal values of course, but you also have to say, ‘okay, I’m clearly not the most educated person on sustainability efforts, so I need help.’”
Govindarajan said it is important to bring student constituents to the table so they have a voice in the decisions being made and know what is going on.
To him, the conversations are impactful because many students and local organizations rarely get chances to speak with federal officials.
Indigenous and underrepresented groups struggle for equitable climate developments
Graves and the students also discussed how the Department of Commerce’s initiatives can consider Indigenous and underrepresented communities.
Students worried sustainable development could spur higher property costs and displace lower-income people.
Graves responded by sharing his past work on equitable economic development, community development and gentrification.
Historically, redlining has been used in property development to discriminate against minority communities. To combat this, Graves said he aims to invest in more affordable housing, especially close to public transportation.
Many of the community investments through the Inflation Reduction Act stress coastal resiliency, habitat restoration and community resiliency.
“We know that the biggest impact of climate change today is in our underserved communities,” Graves said. These impacts mainly stem from a drought of investment in marginalized communities as well as poor government decision-making, he added.
Graves visited Puget Sound in Washington in June 2023 and met with the Stillaguamish and Tulalip Tribes to talk about the declining fishing industry, destruction of historic lands and foodway impacts as a result of landfill and farm construction.
“When you’re mindful and engaged with community partners, and you’re providing data and science and relying on it, then you can make a real impact on communities,” Graves said.
He also praised the Inflation Reduction Act for providing $45 million in investments for tribal and other underserved communities across the country.
Students concluded the discussion by asking about the Inflation Reduction Act’s long-term, systemic impacts.
Graves said local programs and policies will remain in place even with a new administration because money is already invested.
What’s more, he stressed the need for climate advocacy through voting and government involvement. He hoped the current administration’s initiatives carry on with future generations.
“Don’t listen to wonky people like me and assume that things are just going to happen,” Graves said. “Hold us accountable and keep pushing, because that’s what is going to change the world.”