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Optimism on Vermont’s ‘climate economy’

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2016-02-24

By Gregory Dennis, Addison County Independent: http://www.addisonindependent.com/

When confronted with the latest piece of bad news about climate change – record-high temperatures, devastating floods, the North Pole turned into a giant swimming pool – I’m inclined to respond as the writer Dorothy Parker did to many events:

“What fresh hell is this?”

So it was with surprise and delight that I found 500 Vermonters talking this week – not about the latest gloom-and-doom scenario, but about how a rapidly changing climate can be the basis for a new and better Vermont economy.

An event called the Vermont Climate Economy Summit convened all day Monday on the hilltop campus of Vermont Technical College, in Randolph. With encouraging remarks from Sen. Patrick Leahy, House Rep. Peter Welch and Vermont House Speaker Shap Smith, the conference pondered dozens of ways to turn crisis into opportunity.

At the heart of the discussion was a seven-point plan created by a committee headed by Bill Sessions, the longtime Cornwall resident and federal judge. The plan’s focus? “Advancing our economic future in an age of climate change.”

For those of us used to confronting climate change with all the cheeriness of an undertaker, the very existence of the conference and action plan was a cause for optimism.

We’ve grown accustomed to a weary parade focusing on one climate crisis after another: A string of events aimed at evicting people from their property so Vermont Gas can build a polluting pipeline filled with dangerously fracked gas. Sensible people who see the danger of the fossil fuel industry, but who are afraid to support divesting Vermont out of coal because the state treasurer get upset. The long, sad litany of our slide into inaction in the face of peril.

So being surrounded by hundreds of Vermonters who are determined to build a more vibrant, green economy left us all smiling. We could sense not the problems, but the possibilities.

The Green Mountain State is no stranger to global warming. We’ve undergone eight federally declared extreme-weather disaster in just five years. Irene alone took out 500 miles of roads and damaged 200 bridges.

Happily, the state’s tradition of persistence in the face of adversity was much on display this past Monday.

The conference was convened by the nonpartisan Vermont Council on Rural Development (vtrural.org). VCRD is a thriving nonprofit that pulls together various (often disparate) stakeholders to build consensus about the “locally defined progress of Vermont’s rural communities.” In that conception, places like Vergennes, Bristol and Leicester get a lot more attention than Burlington.

What can Vermont do in the face of climate change? As Paul Costello, VCRD’s Executive Director, put it:

“Vermonters have the vision, the strength, the assets and the ingenuity to look into the economy of the future, and gear up for success. 

“As we confront climate change, Vermont businesses, far from being the problem, are the answer. They are modeling creative solutions, expanding efficiencies, building green, developing energy. These are public goods, but also good for the bottom line. 

“We have a great story to tell. In an age of climate change, when all carbon emissions will be scrutinized, and all creativity mitigating climate change rewarded, Vermont has the skills and the people to compete successfully. The best way to do that is to lead in practice and lead in brand reputation.”

But if Vermont is to go beyond the brand reputation of what one attendee called “apples, maple syrup, cows” -- how do we do it?

The council headed by Judge Sessions recommended seven key steps. Probably the most controversial (and the most effective) would be to put a specific new price on carbon emissions. Other recommendations include new ways to fund the revitalization of our picturesque, village-scale downtowns and to market the state nationally as a “climate economy leader.”

Matt Dunne, who’s running for governor this year, is promoting several similar ideas as part of his campaign. He’s gaining attention for just the kind of innovative thinking that dominated Monday’s conference.

So good was the vibe by day’s end, in fact, that Casella executive Joe Fusco compared it to the warm feeling in “the kitten room at the humane shelter.”

Of course there’s a lot of hard work to be done if we are to truly become a national leader on climate issues.

For now, though, the Vermont Council on Rural Development, along with 500 Vermonters gathered on one big day this week, has given us all reasons for hope.

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: gregdennisvt@yahoo.com. Twitter: @greengregdennis.