From Amazon to the Auto Industry, Kenosha, WI Exemplifies Climate Justice Denied
Welcome back to TRNN’s Climate Crisis News Roundup.
This one’s personal: My hometown of Kenosha, Wisconsin made international headlines after both a gruesome police shooting and two people on the streets getting killed by a Trump and Blue Lives Matter fanboy. One of the people killed was my cousin’s best friend, as both of them were dedicated skateboarders. The Blue Lives Matter shooting took place not far from my childhood home. So, this edition will offer a bit of history about Kenosha missed amidst the current moment rightfully focused on police and right-wing violence. In other news, Hurricane Laura is walloping Louisiana and Texas, and the climate crisis went unmentioned at the Republican National Convention. And one of the country’s largest counties has proposed a European-style interurban rail system.
If you have a story you think deserves a spot in the roundup, or story pitches in general, get in touch with me at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SteveAHorn. You can read the previous edition here.
Kenosha’s Climate Injustice
Kenosha, the city where I grew up, an urban area of nearly 125,000 people located about halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, has made international news. Though we called it “Kenowhere” as kids, the city is now on the map for all the wrong reasons. On Aug. 23, Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back at point blank range seven times. The incident was filmed on cell phones from two vantage points and is currently under investigation by both the Wisconsin Department of Criminal Investigation and U.S. Department of Justice.
Jacob Blake, flown to a hospital in Milwaukee after the incident, has miraculously survived. But he may be paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. In the days since the police shooting, there have been protests, rioting, looting, and chaos. And it all reached an especially violent crescendo around midnight on Aug. 26, when a 17-year-old Blue Lives Matter devotee named Kyle Rittenhouse—an apparent fan of President Donald Trump—shot and killed two people, and badly wounded another. Like with Blake, the shooting was filmed, this one livestreamed.
All of that happened within a 48-hour period in a city many had never heard of until the police shooting. So, it makes sense that much of the coverage so far missed information about what Kenosha is, its history, and the sociology and demographics of the city. Simply put: Kenosha is more than the latest battlezone over police brutality. For the purposes of this newsletter, its history also epitomizes climate injustice and serves as a framework for understanding how such an incident could happen.
Kenosha, Wisconsin, is located on the southeast border of the state, on the edge of Lake Michigan, and is the fourth largest city in Wisconsin, quickly approaching third, right behind Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay. And United States population centers are synonymous with jobs. For Kenosha those jobs were in the auto industry, until a decade ago. From 1903-1988, the city rivaled Detroit for manufacturing cars. The city produced cars under several corporate banners, the most well-known being American Motors Corporation, and then Chrysler and DaimlerChrysler. In her 1994 book, “The End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Postindustrial America,” Yale scholar Kathryn Marie Dudley explains that the industry helped to diversity the city by attracting Black and Latinx workers from the southern U.S. with union jobs that were considered some of the best and most lucrative in the industry at the time. According to July 2019 U.S. Census data, 11.5% of the population is Black and 17.6% Latinx, significantly more diverse than the state at large.
In 1988, Chrysler closed down the production line, laying off 5,500 workers. The Kenosha Engine Plant remained, producing only engines for Chrysler, and eventually shuttering in 2010 during the recession and shedding another 575 jobs. Over a span of two decades, Kenosha had changed from a unionized auto company town to a bedroom community for those with jobs in Chicagoland and Greater Milwaukee. The vast majority of jobs in the city itself became low-wage service sector positions.
Chrysler also began funding climate denial during this time period as a member of the Global Climate Coalition, a central messaging tool that existed between 1989-2002 to spread doubt on the science and delay action, which was also funded by the major oil companies. The coalition materialized in the aftermath of NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s testimony in front of Congress about the threat climate change posed in 1988, the first scientist to do so.
During those decades, cars produced by the auto industry helped Kenosha build a sprawling housing pattern to the west, away from the city’s historic core by Lake Michigan. But like most sprawl, this pattern also bolstered segregation and concentrated poverty in certain pockets of the city. The single-family home suburban lifestyle—only possible in most cases via owning and driving multiple greenhouse-gas emitting vehicles—let some people thrive. And that was bad news for climate change. A 2015 University of Michigan study points to suburban sprawl housing as a major contributor to climate change, emitting 25% higher greenhouse gas levels than housing for lower-income families and individuals. The study found Wisconsin to be one of the three states with the most energy intensive housing due to the annual extremities in temperature differences.
Moreover, the city’s electricity comes from a dual generation natural gas and coal power plant in nearby Oak Creek. The city had its own coal-fired power plant until 2018, which opened in 1980, just as Kenosha was shifting from a purely blue collar town to bedroom community. With fossil fuel power servicing its suburban sprawl, Kenosha’s population grew from about 80,000 in 1990 to about 100,000 today. During that time period, another industrial giant with a horrific climate track record seized the opportunity of a shuttered Chrysler: Amazon.
In 2015, Amazon opened a fulfillment center near Kenosha’s airport, along the interstate highway connecting Milwaukee and Chicago, eventually creating 3,000 jobs. It is now the city’s top employer. The company has benefited from $32 million in subsidies in Kenosha.
Still, it’s a far cry from the over 16,000 workers employed during the peak of the auto industry in the 1960s, largely due to the increasingly automated nature of production in Amazon’s facilities. The new jobs also lack union protections, with Amazon steadfastly anti-union. Amazon’s hostile attitude toward labor came to a head during the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, when the company fired workers expressing concerns about the virus spreading in fulfillment centers. One of those workers is previous TRNN guest, Christopher Smalls.
“You can’t avoid coming, interacting with somebody that may test positive, whether it’s in passing, whether it’s in and out the entrance of the building,” Smalls, who was fired from the Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse for his outspokenness and labor activism, told TRNN in an April 28 interview. “The simple fact [is] that you cannot stop the spread of the virus once it’s in these types of facilities.”
Kenosha’s Amazon Fulfillment Center had its own COVID-19 outbreak, as well, with at least 32 workers getting the virus. The company at one point was so uncooperative with the county with testing and reporting case numbers that the county threatened to shut the facility down if Amazon did not comply.
For Kenosha, the climate crisis means polar vortex deep freezes, record-breaking snowfalls and summer rainfalls, coastal erosion, and invasive species in Lake Michigan. Climate justice, at its core, means pushing for what activists call a “just transition”—making moves necessary to combat the crisis and winding down industries making a bad situation worse while also protecting workers transitioning out of those jobs. It also means ensuring those who did the least to cause the climate crisis do not face the brunt of it.
But it also means seeing climate change as part of other struggles, such as the struggle for racial and economic equality. And in these areas, Kenosha—like every other city in the United States—must change.
Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as a Category 4 hurricane but quickly dissipated into a severe tropical storm, far less severe than original prognostications.
In the hours leading up to the hurricane, some forecasters predicted Laura would strengthen to Category 5 at landfall and well into the landmass, which would have made it the worst hurricane in over 150 years in the area and far worse than 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Instead, the wind speed dropped from 150 MPH at landfall to 75 MPH once the storm continued inland. Still, those 75 MPH winds could extend as far as 40 miles inland, the BBC reports. Laura is one of the most powerful storms in United States history.
While some predicted potential oil and gas infrastructure wreckage in this industry hub region, Laura spared most of the facilities of carnage. But one of them, a chlorine production site owned by BioLab in Westlake, Louisiana, had a chemical leak and started on fire. Governor John Bel Edwards, in response, has advised residents “to shelter in place until further notice and close your doors and windows.”
Another angle, gives a sense of the size of the smoke cloud pouring out of a chemical plant of some sort in or near Westlake. pic.twitter.com/PIYSiLhrXE
— Bryn Stole (@brynstole) August 27, 2020
Extreme wind and a storm cyclone knocked out power for over one million Texans and Louisianans. Preparing for the worst, what forecasters dubbed “unsurvivable” hurricanes, 1.5 million people were ordered to evacuate in the days leading up to Laura. As of Aug. 28, six people in Louisiana have reportedly died from the storm.
Before the hurricane officially reached land, winds whipped ferociously enough along the Mississippi River that the river began flowing south-to-north, the opposite of its normal flow.
— The Weather Channel (@weatherchannel) August 27, 2020
Hurricane Laura arrives at the same time that 350,000 acres of land in Northern California are on fire. Over 1.4 million acres of California forest have burned so far this year, compared to 56,000 acres at this time in 2019. Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at Stanford University, told Bloomberg that it’s hard to attribute any single event to climate change, but that it’s important to look at the broader pattern.
“As all of these things become more likely, it’s more likely we’re going to have these coincidences where we have all kinds of weather events that are extreme occurring at once,” Wara said. “It feels like the climate has it in for us.”
RNC Climate Silence
The Republican Party wrapped up its convention this week with more Hatch Act violations, a sleepy but terrifying Trump speech, and fireworks. The whole week was rife with ethics violations, socializing without masks, race-baiting, some very bizarre speeches, and denunciations of “cancel culture.” But the Republicans had nothing to say about climate change, even as a hurricane slammed into two red states.
The party did not even bother to issue a new platform for this year, deferring to the one it approved in 2016, which reads: “Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue. This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it.”
In her newsletter, climate reporter Emily Atkin called the GOP “extremists”: “When it comes to climate change, Republicans are the extremists,” she wrote. “Faced with a clear financial and social catastrophe, their solution is… nothing. Not one damn thing. In fact, their solution is to add more fuel to the fire—more oil, more gas, more fossil fuels.”
Young Republicans called out the climate silence, starting the hashtag #WhatAboutClimate.
As the #RepublicanNationalConvention continues, we’re here to make it clear that:
1) bipartisan leadership on climate is possible
2) young voters want climate action
— American Conservation Coalition (@ACC_National) August 27, 2020
“By not including climate change in the platform or on the stage during this year’s convention, the Republican Party is leaving an entire generation of conservative voters behind,” Benji Backer, president of the American Conservation Coalition—a conservative youth climate action group—told E&E News.
The same week, the Senate Special Committee on the Climate Crisis released its own new plan paying lip service to the climate crisis, but it does not rein in the fossil fuel industry. For example, there is no reduction of fossil fuel subsidies or fracking or offshore drilling. There is also, in line with every other Democratic Party plan released in the past two months, a push for carbon sequestration, utilization, and storage (CCUS). These days, that means mostly capturing carbon at power plants and industrial facilities, using that carbon to extract more oil out of wells, and then sequestering it in underground injection wells.
Mitch Jones, policy director for Food & Water Action, said the report fails to meet the moment on the climate crisis in an effort “to placate the oil and gas lobby.”
“Further, it fails to address the vital need to end the extraction, processing, and burning of fossil fuels, and instead sees a future for fossil fuels tied to the false promise of carbon capture,” he said in a press release. “Any serious climate proposal must have at its center a plan to ban fracking, stop new fossil fuel infrastructure, and end the export of crude oil and natural gas. Anything less condemns future generations to increasing climate chaos.”
San Diego High Speed Rail
San Diego County’s regional planning body, the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), has finally released its mass transit plan. SANDAG’s proposal would create a European-style rail system with trains that go up 80 MPH, weaving through much of the sprawling county.
San Diego County is the fifth most populous in the country, and contains the United States’ eighth largest city. The county is notorious for its heavy traffic and dependency on the web of interstate and state highways that provide essentially the only way to get around expeditiously outside of the downtown core’s light rail system.
Automobile traffic makes up 45% of county greenhouse gas emissions, according to the 2014 county greenhouse gas emissions inventory—the most recently compiled report.
Image Credit: San Diego County
The plan, the rough contours of which were announced last year, is a point of contention between the county’s Democrats and Republicans. Democrats have called it key to meeting the county’s climate goals under state law and creating jobs in the process, while Republicans have positioned it as an expensive and unaccountable boondoggle in the making.
SANDAG Director Hasan Ikhrata agrees strongly with the Democratic camp.
“Our SANDAG planners have poured their blood, sweat, and tears into a truly comprehensive vision for a transportation system of the future,” Ikhrata said in a press release announcing the proposal. “This vision considers evolving technology to create a safe, adaptable, and equitable transportation network with fast, fair, and clean choices to give every San Diegan and future generations the option to move around the region as they choose.”
The plan’s implementation largely hinges on November’s election results. On Aug. 13, the Voice of San Diego reported that the District 3 County Board of Supervisors race between Trump-allied incumbent Kristin Gaspar and Obama Treasury Department alum Terra Lawson-Remer could determine the fate of the proposal by shoring up a voting bloc in favor of the plan within SANDAG. Lawson-Remer told TRNN in 2019 that she supports the plan.
Ikhrata, who has spoken in favor of and advocated fervently for the proposed mass transit system, recently donated to Lawson-Remer’s campaign in an unprecedented maneuver for a SANDAG director—a move slammed by Gaspar’s campaign. He also contributed to a congressional campaign for a sitting SANDAG member, to a mayoral candidate who favors the plan, and to a city council member’s campaign.
The mass transit system will be paid for with a one cent sales tax. The SANDAG board will likely vote on the proposal by fall 2021. It then could take decades to build and would require a two-thirds vote from the public to approve the sales tax which would happen by the 2022 or 2024 election cycle, likely determined by public polling to gauge likelihood of success for the ballot measure. The plan also calls for a traffic congestion pricing system to generate revenue and disincentivize driving.