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Rural America can receive greatest economic benefit from climate mitigation
Doctor believes
Dr. Joel Charles and Finn
DR. JOEL CHARLES and son Finn enjoy some time creekside on their rural Crawford County property. Young Finn came into the world during the flood of 2018 which ravaged their area and breached five flood control dams.

DRIFTLESS - According to Dr. Joel Charles, a family physician who practices in Soldiers Grove and Viroqua with Vernon Memorial Healthcare, rural America is uniquely poised to reap the benefits of a transition to a carbon net-zero energy infrastructure. This transition is central to the Climate Plan recently released by the administration of President Joe Biden.

“The technology is already available, and being improved, for the switch to carbon net-zero,” Charles explained. “This transition will save lives and save money, and the financial benefits, especially in rural America, will become available quickly.”

Charles sits on the board of Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action (WHPCA), and serves as chair of strategic development, and co-chair of the policy and advocacy committee. WHPCA participated in development of the Wisconsin Governor’s Climate Change Task Force Report, released in December of 2020.

While the report did not have a specific section relating to climate and health, recommendations regarding climate change mitigation and adaptation, and their connection to health, are woven into the document throughout. To obtain a copy of the report, go to:

WHPCA has also released a report on climate and health, entitled ‘Medical Alert! Climate Change is Harming our Health in Wisconsin.’ To download a PDF version of that report, go to:

WHPCA estimates that a transition to 100 percent clean energy produced in Wisconsin would prevent the following incidents of illness in Wisconsin each year:

• 1,910 premature deaths

• 650 respiratory ER visits

• 1,580 cases of acute bronchitis

• 49,400 respiratory symptom cases

• 873,000 minor restricted activity days

• 148,000 work loss days

• 34,400 cases of asthma exacerbation

• 670 hospital admissions

• 650 heart attacks

Health impacts

According to the WHPCA, over 150 major medical organizations, representing over 650,000 health professionals have declared that climate change is a health emergency. This includes the Wisconsin Medical Society, whose physician membership endorsed key policies to transition Wisconsin to 100 percent clean energy while preparing for climate change.

WHCPA’s report on climate and health specifies that “in communities across the Midwest, climate change is harming our health now. These harms include heat-related illness, worsening chronic illnesses, injuries and deaths from dangerous weather events, infectious diseases spread by mosquitoes and ticks, illnesses from contaminated food and water, and mental health problems.”

“The health of anyone can be harmed by climate change, but some of us face greater risk than others. Children, athletes, pregnant women, the elderly, some communities of color, people with chronic illnesses and allergies, and the poor are more likely to be harmed.”

Local health issues

Among the many health impacts to citizens from climate change, some are more prevalent in rural areas like Crawford and Vernon counties. Key among those impacts are extreme heat, flooding, and vector borne illnesses such as Lyme’s Disease and other diseases spread by ticks, and diseases spread by mosquitoes like West Nile Virus, Zika, and more.

Charles points out that those who work outside are more vulnerable to the health impacts of climate change.

“People whose jobs require them to work outside are more likely to suffer from impacts like heat waves and vector borne illnesses,” Charles explained. “This will include people in occupations like linesmen, farmers, and logging, to name a few.”

With a warming climate, large rainfall events that lead to flooding will also be an increasing hazard. Some estimates show that if things don’t change quickly enough, flooding could increase by as much as 70 percent by the end of the century.

“As people who live in Southwest Wisconsin have long been aware, flooding causes all kinds of health impacts,” Charles said. “In addition to growth of mold impacting air quality, and contaminated wells impacting water quality, flooding also produces loss of economic well-being and psychological trauma.”

Clean energy

While the impacts of fossil fuel based energy production may be disproportionately suffered by urban dwellers, particularly low-income and/or people of color, the financial opportunities in the transition to clean energy will disproportionately be available to people in rural areas.

Charles says that he is most excited about the opportunities for rural America in the area of clean energy technology.

“Clean energy technology has gotten better, and cheaper, especially in the last 10 years,” Charles said. “Making the transition to clean energy has the possibility to happen quickly enough to make a real difference in people’s health.”

Charles says that while the demand for energy will remain greatest in urban areas, the fact that clean energy will require significant amounts of land means the financial opportunities will be greater in rural areas. This is why Charles sees passage of good policies as critical to the process.

“All the executive orders signed by President Biden are a great start,” Charles said. “But in order to really move the dial as quickly as possible, it is going to require legislation and investment in clean energy infrastructure.”

According to a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), released in January of 2021, the opportunity for rural America has never been better.

“By 2030, renewable energy capacity in the United States will at least double, and potentially grow by a factor of seven or higher if new policies are enacted to capitalize on continuing cost declines in wind and solar technologies. As a result, rural communities––which host 99 percent of onshore wind and a growing share of utility-scale solar projects––stand to receive a sizeable boost to their local economies.”

The report quantifies the scale of the economic development opportunity from the growth of onshore wind and utility-scale solar projects in rural areas.  RMI’s analysis suggests that:

• Annual revenues from wind and solar projects could exceed $60 billion dollars by 2030—on par with expected revenues from the top three US agricultural commodities: corn, soy, and beef production.

• Annual local taxes paid by wind and solar projects could total $2.7 billion in 2030, allowing rural town and county governments to invest more in public services and school districts. Further, lease payments to rural landowners could exceed $2.2 billion by 2030.

• The 54 gigawatts (GW) of wind and solar projects slated to come online in 2030 will employ roughly 40,000 workers during the construction phase, delivering $2.3 billion in annual wages. Meanwhile, a long-term operations and maintenance workforce of 38,000 will be needed to support operating wind and solar projects in 2030, delivering $3.7 billion in annual wages.

• The approximately 600 GW of new wind and solar projected to be built between 2020 and 2030 would generate $220 billion in lifetime value across rural America.

Large rural investment

Charles says that the transition to clean energy is expected to boost the U.S. economy by about $14 billion per year. Because the transition will require large amounts of land, he says that it is projected to produce one of the largest financial investments in rural economies in the history of the nation.

“This investment will help rural communities like Crawford and Vernon counties by increasing the property tax base, providing more money for rural schools and roads,” Charles said. “It will also help rural economies through providing a stable income to farmers through carbon farming, a method of agricultural production which maximizes the amount of carbon that can be stored or sequestered in the soil.”

He said that transitioning energy to electricity will be much more efficient in terms of transportation, and heating and cooling. He said that the key point is that the energy production system will need to become four times as large from the standpoint of land use.

“What this means is that landowners will have opportunities to benefit from making land for a clean energy grid available, and rural areas will see an increase in good paying jobs,” Charles said. “He said that one thing citizens will need to accept is that this transition is going to require more transmission lines, though.”

Changes needed

Charles says that “reliability” of clean energy infrastructure is just a bogeyman used to create opposition to making the transition. 

“There is no basis in fact that a clean energy system would be less reliable,” Charles said. “Huge advances are being made in battery storage, which will virtually eliminate an issues of ‘intermittency’ related to weather.”

Charles says that key issues will be to follow the model of the energy cooperatives, which focused on a self-organized model. Charles says that among things most important to the effort for a quick transition will be increasing the amount of utilities allowing for net metering. 

Net metering allows utility customers to generate their own electricity cleanly and efficiently. During the day, most solar customers produce more electricity than they consume; net metering allows them to export that power to the grid and reduce their future electric bills.

Charles and WHPCA also advocate for a change in laws in the state that would allow development of community solar energy projects, which he says is currently not allowed. A community solar project is a solar power plant whose electricity is shared by more than one property. Project participants benefit from the electricity generated by the community solar farm, which costs less than the price they would ordinarily pay to their utility.

More than a job

Charles works at the Kickapoo Valley Medical Clinic in Soldiers Grove as well as at Vernon Memorial Hospital in Viroqua. He resides in rural Crawford County, where he lives with his wife, Dr. Phoebe Devitt and their child. Phoebe is the daughter of Dr. Timothy Devitt, who founded the Kickapoo Valley Medical Clinic in Soldiers Grove.

The son of a carpenter in Green Bay, Charles says that early experiences growing up have convinced him of the importance of public policy to health in the community.

“At times when I was growing up, my family was on Badgercare and received various forms of public assistance,” Charles explained. “The fact that I was able to go on to pursue a career in medicine at UW-Madison was due to a combination of good public policy and a little bit of luck.”

These early experiences have motivated Charles to go beyond the simple practice of medicine in order to help others like himself.

“The practice of medicine, for me, isn’t just about my own family’s prosperity,” Charles said. “Being a doctor gives me a position of respect in the community that I feel duty bound to use to help others.”

Local recommendations

As far as recommendations for what rural communities like Crawford and Vernon counties should do to fight the impacts of climate change, and protect the health of citizens, Charles has the following recommendations:

• Communities and counties should form task forces like the Climate Change Task Force in Monroe County. The first step is for communities to acknowledge that climate change is happening, and come together to begin conversations about the health impacts, and the opportunities their communities have with the science and technology. Climate change is already severely impacting highways, farmers, businesses, schools and healthcare.

“First, it is crucial to convene the local conversations to find out what matters most to people locally,” Charles said. “Then, the next step is to take that information and combine it with knowledge from the scientists and evolving technologies.”

• Second, Charles advocates for an increase in funding for public health, which he says has been seriously underfunded for years. Underfunding has led to understaffing, which he says is hurting our local communities. While he says that public health efforts will remain dominated by COVID-19 until the pandemic ends, he says it is crucial to continue full funding so that public health departments can begin to turn their focus to protecting their communities against the increasing impacts from climate change.

• The third thing that he says is crucial for rural communities is to let their elected representatives at the local, state and federal levels know that this is a priority for rural America.

“Support for clean energy has been increasing for years, both among liberals and conservatives,” Charles noted. “Public opinion about climate change has been shifting very rapidly in recent years, but a lot of elected officials are not aware of this, and run the risk of losing out on important economic opportunities for their constituents.”