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Nate Freeman: Vermont’s climate questions

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2015-02-15

By Nate Freeman. Published in vtdigger.org: http://vtdigger.org/2015/02/15/nate-freeman-vermonts-climate-questions/

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Nate Freeman, who is director of ClimatePlanners Consulting and program coordinator for the Climate Change & Society master’s program at NC State University.

On Feb. 18 the Vermont Council on Rural Development will be hosting a summit, “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change” at Vermont Technical College. Leaders from government and the business community will discuss a wide range of new and familiar issues in multiple break-out sessions. Executive director Paul Costello will close out the day with a next-step announcement of a new organization, the Vermont Climate Change Economy Council. The intent is to generate organized follow-up activity and tangible outcomes. This makes the summit a standout among a plethora of climate events on the state, regional and national levels.

The occasion provides a good opportunity to ask climate-relevant questions in context to driving factors such as population, governance and social attitudes here in Vermont. Questions such as: “What if Vermont’s population spikes due to dramatic climate events elsewhere? What is the state’s capacity to lead given limited resources and expertise? How do we really feel about new technologies and clean energy?”

If we think about Vermont’s population in context to climate change, we shouldn’t assume our rate of growth will continue in a predictable manner. While official projections estimate 620,000 to 670,000 by 2030, the underlying calculations don’t include the possibility of climate migration. Vermont’s population may swell over time as sea level rises, impacting thousands of communities along the East Coast. Imagine a future Vermont with more than one million people. How do we plan for this possible climate reality? What type of infrastructure would we need? What would this mean for our economy, our landscape and way of life?

Governance is another issue we should consider. At first glance we might think of Vermont as a national leader in climate change but if we take a closer look we must acknowledge a more realistic position. Vermont led the way in energy savings 15 years ago with the creation of Efficiency Vermont but much time has passed and we need to applaud and learn from climate adaptation work in other states. The most telling examples of climate leadership can be found in official planning documents. Many states published comprehensive climate adaptation reports several years before the 2014 Vermont Climate Assessment. Some states are implementing goals and reaching a second phase of adaptation planning. While it’s fair for Vermont to celebrate its achievements, some leadership claims may be disproportionate to reality. Fortunately, governance isn’t a leadership contest. By recognizing our position as middle of the pack, policymakers may be more open to learning from world-class knowledge just beyond our borders. In all humility, sometimes Vermont appears to want special recognition for doing things the Vermont way, when in fact we can do much better. The question is, will governance follow Vermont customs and traditions or will policymakers and heads of agencies look at climate adaptation as a blank-slate opportunity?

Finally, we can assess social attitudes. Vermont demonstrates progressive yet complex, sometimes contradictory social attitudes toward climate adaptation responses. Take energy, for example. How do Vermonters really feel about smart grid technology when weighing cost, efficiency and security? How do we become responsible for generating our own power, or at least help compensate for environmental impacts where energy is produced? We can’t assume Vermont residents will approach clean energy strategies in a consistent, predictable manner even as we are faced with the responsibility to dramatically decrease carbon emissions. The complexity of Vermont’s social attitudes is important to acknowledge particularly because it dovetails into government policies.

Thinking about population, governance and social attitudes scenarios in context to climate change can help decision-makers and stakeholders imagine different ways Vermont may evolve. This type of exercise can then help determine paths, strategies and contingency plans. When climate scenario thinking is paired with focused, issue-specific discussions, words can translate into effective, coordinated work. This is the real opportunity VCRD is providing at their upcoming summit and through the creation of a new Climate Change Economy Council. “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change” is poised to generate tangible, post-event outcomes for our climate economy. I, for one, am looking forward to the follow-through just as much as the event.