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Rhonda Siebecker, News Republic

The lack of bright fall colors in recent years is an indication of climate change, according to Todd Persche of the Baraboo Range Preservation Association, who helped lead a local climate change discussion group.

One faith-based group in the area is tackling a worldwide problem, led by a forward-looking pastor. Baraboo’s First United Methodist Church Pastor Marianne Cotter said climate change had been a subject she wanted to learn more about.

“I really wanted to become better educated as a citizen and a spiritual leader,” she said, describing climate change as “one of the most important moral issues we face in the world today.”

In her search for a group facilitator, she said she consulted people at the Aldo Leopold Foundation and one name kept coming up: Todd Persche.

Persche, the executive director of the Baraboo Range Preservation Association, took over as facilitator, along with Cotter, of the new Climate Change Discussion Group. Persche said he was interested in being a part of it because of the subject matter, but also to work with this particular group.

“A community faith-based group has a better moral compass, I find,” he said. “It is not an easy subject to talk about. “

Persche said he knows there is documented proof of climate change on a local level. He said famed conservationist Aldo Leopold kept careful documents, writing down when the first birds migrated in the area and flower blooming timeframes. That practice continues today at the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo.

“Flowers are blooming 10 days to three weeks earlier and birds are coming back 10 days to three weeks early,” he said. “Climate change is having an effect on the local landscape,” Persche said.

He said the lack of brilliant fall colors also is a sign of climate change.

“Here we are in late September. The usual colors are browns … tinges of what used to be,” he said. “In the 70s and 80s the hills were alive with color. This is a micro example on the way to a much larger one.”

To facilitate a discussion group, the First United Methodist Church of Baraboo provided space and subsidized the cost of the book, “Eaarth,” by Bill McKibben, which added an extra letter “a” in the Earth in its title to suggest we are not living on the same planet as we were several years ago. McKibben believes climate change already is occurring and, along with trying to prevent further damage, everyone needs to figure out how to adapt to this new environment.

Cotter said money from the Dave Fordham estate helped fund the local group that looked into the new Earth. Their original goal was to create a group of about 20, but 25 enrolled, so they were at their capacity before their first meeting.

“We met for five weeks and we had wide-ranging conversation,” Cotter said. “Most of the people in the group were already fairly well educated on this issue.”

Different scenarios

Persche posed scenarios to the group. “He invited us in small groups to imagine if there was some sort of natural disaster here in Baraboo, triggered by climate change,” Cotter said. “How would we respond? How would we organize our neighborhood to provide for the most vulnerable?”

Persche said they talked about a winter scenario, which featured a storm that “locked down the Midwest,” with power not being restored for weeks. “How does it look for your family the first day, the second day, the first week?” he said. “How do you visualize and prepare for something like that?”

A summertime flooding scenario also was posed, but the discussion was not all doom-and-gloom. “It’s about trying to figure out how to live on this new planet,” Persche said.

“Beforehand, there was nervousness,” Persche said of the group. “Afterward, there were ideas to deal with this.” He said McKibben’s “Eaarth” helps prepare people for changes, which the book claims already are happening.

Action plans

Though the discussion group has come to an end, other action plans are in place, Cotter said. The group gathered people to travel to Madison and watch Pope Francis on a big screen. The Pope recently addressed poverty and climate change in a discussion with President Barack Obama and other lawmakers in Washington, D.C.

Both Cotter and Persche encourage people to contact their legislators about climate change prevention measures.

There also will be a public event at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 25 at First United Methodist Church. “It’s a worship service led by those in the discussion group,” Cotter said. “The working title of it is Stories of Hope: How Will You Respond to Climate Change?”

She said the group also plans to have a small group for those who want to continue to integrate spiritual, ethical and religious issues related to climate change.

“Anyone of any faith, or no religious faith, are welcome, this will affect absolutely everybody,” Cotter said. A potluck dinner will take place, along with conversation about “what happens next” and how faith will be used to address the impact of climate change. The group plans to meet at 6 p.m. Nov. 13. Call the First United Methodist Church at 608-356-3991 for more information.

Cotter said this group will be considered “pilgrims” who have been called to take the next steps in a journey. “We’re going to use the image of a journey to the new reality of Eaarth with two a’s,” she said.

Baraboo News Republic reporter