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Editorial: Rising tides

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2016-02-25

As seen in the Times Argus: http://www.timesargus.com/article/20160225/OPINION01/160229804

A report out this week found that sea levels are rising more rapidly than at any time since the era of ancient Rome. As a result, coastal flooding is becoming commonplace, promising cataclysmic changes in the not-too-distant future.

This was the reality hanging over a summit meeting held in Randolph on Monday as part of a statewide effort to guide the future of what is being called Vermont’s “climate economy.” It’s not that the oceans are going to cover Vermont. Rather, leaders in Vermont recognize the many ways that climate change imperils people everywhere and understand that the state has a chance to transform its economy in ways that will allow it to benefit from the changes that are inevitable.

Numbers related to the rising sea level are stark. Annapolis, Maryland, experienced 32 days of flooding between 1955 and 1964. Between 2005 and 2014, it experienced 394 days of flooding. Charleston, South Carolina, has experienced a similar change. Flooding has become routine for coastal cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami Beach, Florida. The report found that three-quarters of the tidal flooding happening on the east coast of the United States would not be happening without human-caused climate change.

Some of the damage of higher sea levels comes with big storms such as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. But apart from the storms, high water from tidal floods has inundated coastal cities on a regular basis. The havoc rising waters could cause around the globe is almost beyond imagining. Great cities such as New York would be imperiled, but so would vast populations in nations such as India and Bangladesh.

As the reality of these threats sinks in, local communities around the globe are recognizing that it is up to them to take action. Vermont cannot save the world, but the world cannot be saved unless Vermont and thousands of other communities everywhere accept their responsibilities.

As a practical matter, the state has much to gain by pioneering the new technologies and economic changes that are likely to take hold in the near future. In the electric power industry, for example, many utilities are resisting the advance of solar power because it is a threat to their business. They are like telecommunications companies doubling down on landlines. They are going to be left behind.

At least, that is the calculation of Mary Powell, CEO of Green Mountain Power, which is working to pioneer a restructured electric power system. The new system would be less reliant on large, central generators transmitting power over long distances to customers far and wide and more reliant on widely dispersed local micro-grids that could generate and consume power locally. These small systems would employ the latest renewable technology, including solar power and rapidly improving battery technology. GMP has been meeting with Tesla, a company building innovative electric automobiles and also pioneering battery technology and solar power.

It is noteworthy the degree to which the Vermont community has embraced these changes and a vision of the future that includes renewable energy. The political and business leadership of the state is virtually unanimous in lining up behind the effort to achieve a renewable energy future and the economic gains that are likely to follow. Mayors from Barre, Montpelier and Rutland were present to describe innovations already under way.

Change doesn’t happen automatically. It requires leaders to articulate a vision and for others to be willing to affirm that vision and carry it forward. It is happening in Vermont, and it must continue to happen. As businesses and jobs proliferate, the new economy will gain a momentum of its own, and if it does, others may seek to emulate it. In that case, it may be possible to slow the melting of the ice caps and the rising of the tides and the roaring of the storms that are already upon us. Then our children and grandchildren can take a measure of satisfaction that we and they accepted our responsibility and did our part.