Climate change

DNR secretary Cathy Stepp says it doesn't matter what she thinks about the cause of climate change because the department doesn't concern itself with that. 

Associated Press

The head of Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources says people have overreacted to the department’s removal of language from its public website describing the scientific consensus that human activity is the main cause of climate change.

In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, DNR secretary Cathy Stepp said she believes there is substantial scientific disagreement on the cause of climate change, and that it “doesn’t matter” if her view contradicts the vast majority of scientists in that field.

It came to light last month that the department had replaced the webpage with one suggesting that the cause of climate change is uncertain.

The scientists said the DNR was ignoring facts in a way that portrayed state government as anti-science.

“Rapid changes in climate are threatening public health, safety, and natural resources,” they said. “Failing to accurately inform the public about these threats and the opportunities to reduce them, violates the trust we place in our public institutions.”

On Friday, Stepp responded by saying the department continues to use the best science on how Wisconsin’s climate will change in coming decades as it makes decisions on the species of trees it plants and where it creates fishing access to cold-water trout streams.

The website was changed in response to demands made by a writer for a newspaper in northern Wisconsin who claims the causes of climate change are unproven, Stepp confirmed.

She said the website now reflects what the department’s position has been since Gov. Scott Walker appointed her in 2011.

While insisting that her personal view wasn’t relevant, Stepp said she believes there is still a significant scientific debate about the cause of climate change.

“I’ve read competing pieces so, yes, I would say there is debate out there,” Stepp said.

The cause of climate change isn’t important to the DNR because its role is limited to adapting wildlife management methods to environmental changes and enforcing greenhouse gas standards set by others, Stepp said.

In changing the website, the DNR eliminated six links to other sites on climate change. By retaining two links to related UW-Madison sites on the new webpage, the DNR demonstrated that it wasn’t disavowing science, Stepp said.

Walker has been vocal in opposing new federal regulations aimed at controlling greenhouse gases that cause climate change, saying the regulations would cost businesses too much.

But Walker has skirted questions on the causes of climate change. A spokeswoman in 2015, however, said Walker didn’t believe there had been measurable warming in the previous 15 or 20 years.

The governor’s office didn’t respond when asked if he accepts the scientific consensus on the cause of climate change and what should be done to address it.

Walker’s Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities that include coal-burning power plants, quietly removed its climate change page several months ago. The commission spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for information on what prompted the change.

When asked on Wednesday in Milwaukee if the DNR’s action went overboard, Walker told reporters: “Well, I think from our standpoint, the Department of Natural Resources should be upholding the law and not creating new law or policy. ... That’s up to the people elected to do that.”

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