By Kevin O'Connor, Times Argus - http://www.timesargus.com/article/20141026/THISJUSTIN/710269963
Can Vermont simultaneously jumpstart its job market and help stop global warming?
That’s the goal of organizers of a new Vermont Climate Change Economy Council, set to gather business, public policy and environmental leaders for a major summit and multiyear collaboration to grow the state’s “green” economy while cropping fossil-fuel emissions worldwide.
“How do we attract youth, encourage dynamic entrepreneurship and make money?” says Paul Costello, executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Vermont Council on Rural Development. “We look at all these issues and see a conjunction. Because of our collective values, creativity and green reputation, the state has a compendium of assets that add up to a tremendous opportunity.”
But first it must confront a few obstacles: “Current dialogues are disconnected,” council organizers note in one internal document, “and there is no independent center-point outside state government that unites policy, business and science in framing ideas into a consistent platform for economic action.”
“Much of the climate change dialogue is framed around curbing carbon and is seen by some as detrimental to business and economic development,” the statement continues. “The ‘resilience dialogue,’ on the other hand, is reactive — it describes how to prepare for the next flooding, or how to improve emergency services — and does not connect to an economic development strategy.”
Enter Costello’s organization. For two decades, the federally authorized rural development council has engaged public, private and nonprofit partners in collaborations “to address critical community concerns,” according to its website, vtrural.org.
VCRD has led policy efforts in agricultural development, energy generation, the creative and digital economies, community organizing and, most recently, the Council on the Future of Vermont, a 2007 to 2009 study that inspired the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative that now grants $1 million annually to farm and forestry projects.
Such investment seeds individual businesses. But with the entire state facing economic and environmental storm clouds, can support efforts go bigger?
The rural development council aims to start with a February 2015 summit titled “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change.”
The 400-person event will focus on “building business opportunities, contributing to community resilience, and creating jobs that support the prosperity of Vermont communities through the mitigation of the state’s carbon impact and the conservation of energy,” according to plans.
The agenda calls for a “keynote national speaker” and sessions to propose and prioritize answers to the questions: “Where is the economic opportunity for sector and cluster development in Vermont that can be a foundation for future prosperity? What practical actions or policy directions make most sense for us to advance today?”
The summit will lead to the formation of the Climate Change Economy Council, whose appointed civic leaders will spend the rest of 2015 collecting and sharing recommendations though regional public forums before the January 2016 release of “a bold action plan to create jobs and boost prosperity while reducing carbon impacts and advancing efficiencies.”
“Our job isn’t to duplicate current efforts,” Costello says. Instead, the philanthropic-funded group will aim to build “an increased sense of unity” among the state’s economic and environmental interests to support innovation and investment that addresses climate change, advances “the Vermont brand as an economic/environmental problem solver” and attracts youth and creative entrepreneurs.
“We know there’s going to be a lot of work to do in terms of moving this forward,” Costello says. “We’re committed to advancing these ideas into the long-term future. What are the practical policies we need to develop? How do we tell our story in a way that makes Vermont a national destination for young people who are looking to be at the center of the movement?”
Costello is prepared for people to question everything from the existence of global warming to whether a small state can make a big difference.
“There are going to be critics,” he says. “But for us, all our history leads to this. As an organization, we’re designed to find unity and form a strong dialogue.”
Besides, Costello knows many already are speaking the same language. The state’s largest utility, Green Mountain Power, is spearheading a “Solar Capital of New England” project. Vermont Law School has earned U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the nation’s top environmental institution for six consecutive years.
And the state’s new Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy aims in part to create “a haven for businesses leading the world in adapting to, mitigating and reversing the effects of climate change.”
The challenge is turning the talk into action.
“Many worry that addressing climate change can undermine jobs and diminish economic opportunity,” council organizers note in one internal document. “Confronting climate change through innovative economic development, however, can be a competitive strategy, one that will build national reputation, create jobs, and attract youth and entrepreneurism to the states that lead.”