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Summit to tackle climate change, economy

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2015-02-15

This week’s Summit on Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change isn’t about the debate over climate change, organizers say.

Instead, it’s about how to use climate change to benefit Vermont’s economy.

The summit Wednesday at Vermont Technical College in Randolph will be a daylong conversation including panel discussions, work groups and keynote addresses. Gov. Peter Shumlin kicks off the event with a speech titled “Vermont as a Climate Economy Leader.”

Paul Costello, director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development said the charge of the council, as laid out by federal agricultural legislation, is to help coordinate state and federal policy in its work on behalf of Vermont’s rural communities.

Costello said the council pulls people together at the community level to help focus on what’s within their power to achieve to improve the quality of life in their communities.

“We’re neither Republicans nor Democrats,” he said. “We really look to find a common point for people to think forward.”

Costello said the council tries to teach local leaders that they have some sway over public policy. He said resources from both the state and federal level follow towns that are organized and have a strong sense of direction.

Even though the VCRD attempts to stay neutral, or “actively non-partisan” according to its website, Costello acknowledges that picking a contentious issue like climate change to focus on could raise some eyebrows.

“Choosing your topic is saying this is important and worthy of consideration and direction,” he said. “In the fraught political environment we live in, climate change is controversial.”

“What we’ve done is said we’re not climate science experts. We’re not business leaders, per se,” Costello said. “We’re not congressional or state authorities. We’re saying we really ought to be talking about this. The Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military are building contingency plans around climate change. Maybe Vermont should, too.”

Costello said the point of the summit is to try to generate ideas to get ahead of state and federal policies that will come down the pike regarding climate change and the economy, rather than allowing those policies to be imposed from above and reacting to them.

“How do we look at opportunities for business creation, job creation and economic development? That’s not ideological. That’s not Republican or Democrat,” Costello said.

“All the controversies that go on in other states, let’s set that aside and let’s just think rationally together as Vermonters about what we can stand for and take advantage of this set of circumstances to boost jobs and be competitive here,” he said.

Ted Brady, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s director of rural development for Vermont and New Hampshire, said his branch of the federal agency is the only one devoted strictly to making sure rural communities thrive. He said it does that by investing in communities, people, homeowners and renters and businesses in rural communities.

Last year, Brady said, $125 million in federal resources were spent in rural Vermont.

Without the VCRD’s direction on where those funds should go, Brady said the money would be “shotgun-shattered” across the state to anyone who asked.

Regarding the summit this week, Brady said one of the things the VCRD does is sound out the state’s people to see what’s important to them.

“We’ve taken the pulse of the populace of Vermont and we see this emerging need to have a real conversation about climate change and what it means for Vermonters,” he said. “Not whether it happens or whether it doesn’t happen, not why it’s happening, but what it means for Vermonters.”

Brady pointed to Tropical Storm Irene and all the damage it did to Vermont in 2011. The next year, he said, the federal government spent $100 billion cleaning up after climate-related disasters, including Irene.

“These are things that are horrible tragedies that are also things we need to talk about being more resilient for, and how do we prepare for these no matter what the causes are,” Brady said.

He suggested the climate change issue is one area with opportunities to improve Vermont’s economy.

“It’s not about the debate of climate change, it’s about the opportunities within that, the economic opportunities within it,” he said. “What does it mean for our communities? What does it mean for the future of our jobs?”

Brady said the goal of the summit is to turn the lemons of climate change into lemonade for the state.

Last week Costello said about 400 people had already signed up for the summit. Registration is $40 and will be open until the start of the event.

Costello said the VCRD will work to find a seat for those who show up at the last minute, but he expects it to be a full house.

Costello and Brady sat down last week with Times Argus editor Steve Pappas for a conversation on City Room on CVTV public access television. That program can be seen online at vimeo.com/119455741.