Category Archives: For the Community

Bringing Climate Action a Little Closer to Home – Subnational & Non-State Actions in Vermont

On November 4, 2019, the U.S. submitted to the United Nations a formal notification of its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. This formal notification officially initiates the process of withdrawal, which will take effect one year from the delivery of the notification. The timing of this withdrawal is significant because in 2020, countries are expected to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement and to submit their long-term low-emission strategies to the United Nations. This Trump Administration decision was strategically aimed at avoiding submitting its contributions. However, according to a press statement by the Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, the U.S. will still contribute to international climate discussions, and pledges to continue to work with global partners to enhance resilience to the impacts of climate change, and prepare for and respond to natural disasters.

You may be wondering how the country could still contribute to the international response to climate change. One means of contribution is through the efforts of non-state and subnational actors. Non-state and subnational actors can include cities, states, regions, private companies, investors, foundations, civil society organizations and cooperative initiatives. These types of actors, from across the U.S., have been stepping up in response to the lack of commitment to the international climate change agenda exhibited by this administration. This year, the U.S. Department of State is expected to send only a small team of negotiators to the UN climate talks in Madrid, Spain. However, many subnational and non-state actors will be present, and showcase their efforts to implement their own individual climate targets.

Where does Vermont stand in all of this, and what role has it played as a subnational when the federal administration retreats from its international climate change commitments? Well, Vermont is taking action on a number of issues and at various levels, including state, local and the private sector. Vermont was one of the first States, headed by Republican Governor Phil Scott, to join the U.S. Climate Alliance in 2017, a coalition of States that have pledged to continue working towards the goals of the Paris Agreement. But even before joining the Alliance, Vermont had already been taking action. While action towards achieving climate change goals at the international level may seem remote and far removed from daily life, these initiatives are examples of how local planning and decision-making can shape the larger fight against climate change. Here are some of the efforts and initiatives across the State working towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and addressing climate challenges:

State Level Efforts

Comprehensive Energy Plan – In 2016, Vermont established new planning goals for reducing emissions from energy use, setting a goal of 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions levels by 2030, and an 80 to 90% reduction by 2050. Achieving these goals requires change across all sectors, and the State has planned for changes in agriculture, forestry, transportation, waste management and energy to achieve these goals. The plan focuses on an energy revolution from renewable sources.

Ayah1

Vermont’s energy flows in 2015, with paths forward to 2025, 2035, and 2050.

 

Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI) –  Vermont is part of a regional collaboration working towards improving transportation, developing the clean energy economy, and reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector through a “cap and invest” system. As part of this collaboration, the State is developing a proposal for an investment plan that would ensure low-income residents in rural and urban areas access to affordable transportation and services. The investment plan include incentives for electric vehicles and other vehicle efficiency programs, expanded investments in transit, and incentives to influence land use decisions that decrease demand for single occupancy vehicles.

Ayah2

An overview of the regional TCI “cap and invest” system that would drive down the price of compliance with transit air pollution reduction mechanisms.

City Level Efforts 

Burlington Climate Action Plan – The City, with significant input from the community, developed a climate action plan with over 200+ proposed climate change mitigation strategies.  These strategies cover various areas, including renewable energy, energy efficiency, transportation, mixed use development, policy, research & education, urban forestry & sequestration, water reduction & recycling, and local food production.

Net Zero Energy Roadmap – Released early this year, the roadmap is one of the most ambitious local climate agendas in the country. The roadmap identifies 4 key pathways to get to a Net Zero Energy city by 2030. These pathways include efficient electric buildings, electric vehicles, implementing a district energy system, and providing alternative methods of transportation.

Private Sector Efforts 

Vermont Climate Pledge Coalition – This coalition represents a group of organizations from across the State committed to meeting Vermont’s energy and climate goals. Founded in June 2019, the coalition had 32 founding members from educational institutions such as the University of Vermont, and Vermont Technical College, nonprofits such as the ECHO Center, and private businesses such as Burton and Seventh Generation.

Vermont’s Youth Pass Historic Climate Declaration

On September 20th, 2019, thousands of Vermonters of all ages walked out of class and walked out of work to protest inaction of our global leaders in the face of climate change. This day sparked something in Vermont’s youth—it was the beginning of a new movement.

The 171 student delegates of the first Vermont Youth Climate Congress gather on the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier just before unanimously passing the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration

The 171 student delegates of the first Vermont Youth Climate Congress gather on the steps of the Statehouse in Montpelier just before unanimously passing the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration

Inspired by the Youth Climate Strike, 171 young Vermonters convened at the Statehouse for the first ever Vermont Youth Climate Congress. These student delegates hailed from 43 middle schools, high schools, colleges, and one law school (Vermont Law, of course). The idea to hold Vermont’s first Youth Climate Congress grew from a desire to do something more than protest – a desire to create that which students felt Vermont’s Legislators have thus far failed to do. Thus, on November 17th, 2019, Vermont’s next generation of voters and leaders drafted, amended, and unanimously passed the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration.

The Congress was organized by Vermont Youth Lobby, and spearheaded by two incredible young women who are currently high school seniors. Planning for the Congress had been underway for weeks – the Environmental Law Society (ELS) at Vermont Law became involved a month before the Congress took place. Representatives from ELS joined Youth Lobby members as well as staff from VPIRG at planning meetings every two weeks leading up to the Congress, were up late into the night on conference calls with the organizers the week of the event, and drafted much of the language of the Declaration, as well as multiple memos on Climate Justice, Resilience, and Infrastructure.

The ten delegates from the Environmental Law Society at Vermont Law School

The ten delegates from the Environmental Law Society at Vermont Law School

As organizers of a brand new event that had never been experimented with before—gathering almost 200 students of ages 11 to 25 in a statehouse to pass a complicated declaration on the climate emergency—participants had no idea what to expect from the Congress. The day opened with inspiring remarks from you young organizers, followed by a roll call of the schools, and a statement acknowledging the that the land upon which the Statehouse sits belongs to the Abenaki tribe.

Participants then broke into small committee sessions to discuss, consider and amend the language of the Declaration. The topics of the Committees were Transportation, Energy, Climate Justice, Just Transition to a Green Resilient Economy, and Agriculture. The expectation was for Committee Chairs to discuss the relevant solutions in the Declaration and to answer any questions that the younger delegates might have – what actually happened was incredible. Every single Committee discussed the content of the solutions and the issues Vermont needs to tackle, and every Committee amended the language of document with precision and attention to detail. For example, the Agriculture Committee payed specific attention to the economic struggle Vermont farmers face in tackling climate change, and thus amended the language to provide “economic incentives and educational support” for farmers as they respond to climate change. To see a sixth grader in heated debate with a college junior over the use of the term “regenerative agriculture” instead of “sustainability” was to find hope that the next generation of leaders is prepared for the issues they—we—face.

Co-Chairs of the Youth Climate Congress share opening remarks with the delegates and representatives from the Climate Solutions Caucus of the Vermont Legislature

Co-Chairs of the Youth Climate Congress share opening remarks with the delegates and representatives from the Climate Solutions Caucus of the Vermont Legislature

The day ended, unexpectedly, on the steps of the Statehouse after the building had to be evacuated. Students cried a resounding, unanimous “Aye!” to pass the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration as amended in committee.

The Congress was more than a cry for action; it was a celebration of empowerment. Young students acknowledged the impact that they can have upon a system that often labels them as too young or too inexperienced to participate. Students were angry, but hopeful; frustrated but inspired. This inspiration caught the attention of many Vermonters: Senator Bernie Sanders said of the event:

Young people understand all too well that they will be the generation most affected by the devastating consequences of climate change . . . . I am especially proud of young Vermonters for keeping up the fight . . . [and] I am enormously pleased to see the tremendous leadership from young people in Vermont and beyond.

The Youth Climate Congress marks the beginning of a new wave of youth organizing and action in response to climate change. The delegates will convene again in early January to present the Young Vermonters United Climate Declaration to the Legislature and to demand action. Vermont’s youth are a model for the rest of the country. They are taking a stand and demanding action: the Declaration sets forth that “the people who have the power to make these decisions will not be around to face the consequences of inaction, and that is why we, the youth, demand to be heard.” These inspiring, intelligent, and resilient leaders will fight until our state and nation act. As the Declaration concludes: “we are facing an urgent and unprecedented global emergency. Vermont must play a role in the fight to end climate injustice, and as its youth we are demanding that our government do their part.”

 

Cascades of Climate Change: A Call For Action

Climate change. Who cares? Well, you should. Climate change is not some far off phenomenon where only people generations from now will experience its devastating effects. Climate Change Is Now. There is only one mother Earth, and we only get one shot to live here.

Whether you are a resident of a coastal state like Maryland or a land locked state like Vermont, you will see the effects of climate change. Climate change does not only mean that the planet will get a little warmer. (I currently live in Vermont, and I wouldn’t mind it being a few degrees warmer in the winter). But this is a misconception of what climate change truly is.

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) there is a difference between climate change and global warming. Weather refers to atmospheric conditions that happen in a particular location during short periods of time, while climate refers to average temperature, rainfall patterns and humidity of regional and global areas over a period  of years or decades. Global warming is “the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increases heat-trapping greenhouse gas levels in the Earth’s atmosphere.” Climate change is long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates.

Climate change, whether you are a skeptic or not, is here. It has been affecting the U.S. for quite a while. Coastal communities are assessing their vulnerabilities and risks and have been planning accordingly to implement climate change resilience plans. Despite lack of support for The Paris Agreement at the federal level, states are making progress towards reducing emissions, and may, cumulatively, be able to overcome inertia at the federal level.  The US. Climate Alliance is one of many sub-nationals, which are entities that operate below national government. These actors show that there is a possibility to close the emissions gap without the work of national actors. For example cities, “consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions.”

The U.S. Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition consisting of 24  governors who have pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. This state-led entity focuses on cooperation among the states to expedite necessary climate solutions that help each other reach their climate goals.

The Alliance encompasses 55 percent of the U.S. population. It has the third largest economy in the world—ranking under China and the United States—with an $11.7 trillion economy. The members’ policies surrounding climate and clean energy have drawn in billions in investments and has generated more that 1.7 million jobs in the clean energy sector. This number is over half of the total  number of jobs within the clean energy sector in the United States. The U.S. Climate Alliance has illustrated that climate leadership will not destroy economic growth.

This is a wake-up call for Americans. Climate change should not be a politically polarized issue. Republican and Democratic governors alike have shown through the creation of this alliance that climate change should bring us together instead of dividing us.

There is only one planet Earth, and this alliance has taken the initiative to keep the United States on track with its obligations under the Paris Agreement.

The current members of the U.S. Climate Alliance are: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

If you do not see your state listed and want it to  join the U.S. Climate Alliance, please press your local representative to take action.

The Ocean Impacts the Everyday Life of Vermonters

Vermont, although the only New England state with no coastline, is closer to the ocean than Vermonters think. The ocean impacts the daily lives of Vermonters from the hikers and skiers in the Green Mountains to the farmers in the valleys. Simply, if it were not for the ocean, Vermont would not be the same.

Historically speaking, Vermont would not be the same without the ocean. In July 1609, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain made his way across the Atlantic Ocean, using the rivers to navigate him and his crew to the now known, Lake Champlain. The Champlain Canal, opened in 1823, connects the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Champlain through the Hudson River. The Champlain Canal is 60 miles long and provides a route for trade, recreation, and passage. Trade once boomed on the Champlain Canal, transporting over 1.5 million tons of commercial freight from the Atlantic Ocean, through the Hudson River, and to Lake Champlain. These commercial goods eventually found their way into Vermont, impacting the lives of those residing in the State.

Kristyn 1

Map of the Champlain Canal. The canal connects the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Champlain.

Although trade is not as prevalent today on the Champlain Canal, it is a major recreation hot spot. Many use this major passageway to reach the Atlantic Ocean. With boat traffic came invasive species. Lake Champlain’s freshwater ecosystem has been invaded by a number of saltwater species from the Atlantic Ocean, including: sea lamprey, water chestnut, zebra mussel, and white perch. These species seriously impact not only the Lake Champlain ecosystem, but also its economic benefits, like fishing.

Lake Champlain is not the only connection between the ocean and Vermonters. The oxygen produced by marine photosynthesizers supply Vermonters and the Green Mountain forests with necessary oxygen. Phytoplankton alone contribute 50 to 80 percent of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Kristen 2

Phytoplankton produce majority of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Vermont’s weather is directly impacted by the ocean as well. The major air masses come to Vermont from subarctic North America (cold, dry air), the Gulf of Mexico (warm, moist air), and the North Atlantic Ocean (cool, damp air). These air masses directly affect recreational activities that Vermonters and many visitors cherish, including skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing. Vermont’s agricultural industry, especially the maple syrup industry, is also affected with extreme weather patterns. So, weather coming from the ocean has major impacts on the Vermont economy.

Although the ocean is not in our backyard, it is not as far away as Vermonters think. It is with us every day, impacting how Vermonters eat, breathe, and spend their lives.

The Future of Maple Syrup

Waffles or pancakes, it’s an age-old debate that will never come to an end.  But one thing almost everyone can agree on is that no matter which you pick, you’re guaranteed to need syrup to go with it.  In places like Vermont, Maple syrup is a staple; so much so that Vermont Law School even sent out a bottle of it with its welcome packages.  In 2018, Vermont produced over 38% of the maple syrup around the United States and in 2017, the maple industry was valued at $140 million.  Maple is Vermont’s fourth largest value added agricultural export, employing around three thousand people.  Value added agriculture is a product that goes through a physical transformation.  Climate change could significantly affect maple syrup production in Vermont.

Maple syrup starts as sap.  During the summer months, sugar is made in the maple leaves and then stored as starch in the roots.  It is stored all through the winter and during “sugaring weather,” around late February or early March you can begin to tap the trees.  Maple syrup production is directly tied to the weather.  Sap is made through the process of starch being turned back into sugar and mixing with the groundwater.  Sap will only begin to flow when the temperature gets above freezing during the day and drops below freezing at night (freezing and thawing cycle).  The differential between the day and night temperature is what creates the pressure that pushes the sap out of the tree.

The most notable change in maple production is the timeframe sugar-makers have to harvest the sap from their trees.  Warmer temperatures mean a shorter and more un-predictable sugaring season.  A shorter season affects sap production by reducing the number of freezing and thawing cycles, meaning the maple trees produce less sap.

Maple Syrup

Every year, more than half of northeastern sugar maples are covered by a blanket of snow 8 inches deep or more. This is significant because maple trees also rely on snow to protect their roots from freezing.  Snow helps insulate the ground and provides moisture to the trees, which helps make the sap.  Higher temperatures due to climate change mean less snow fall, and less water for the trees to take up to convert into sap.  Less snowfall also means that maple forests will not grow as much.  This not only poses a problem for people who love maple syrup; it also means that there is less carbon dioxide being absorbed by trees, keeping it trapped in the atmosphere.  Trees pull in about 5% – 30% of America’s CO2 emissions.

In the short term, new technologies, like vacuum, tapping, and tubing sanitation, have increased maple production in recent years.  Vacuum systems have made sap collecting more efficient for sugar makers to harvest their trees during tough climate conditions.  The worry is that the optimal conditions that make the maple industry will disappear completely.  Although the future looks grim for the maple industry, there is still time for the world to change and reduce the effects of climate change.

How Climate Change is Affecting Vermont and What Vermonters Are Doing About It

Driving down route 14 in mid-October, it’s hard not to let your eyes wander and take in the beauty of the changing colors. The vibrant oranges, yellows, and red leaves mixed in with the Douglas Ferns is an iconic site in Vermont that brings thousands of “leaf peepers” from all over the country to the Green Mountain state. Along with the colorful scenery, people come to Vermont for their maple syrup, skiing, hiking, camping, some of the country’s best craft beers, and to experience life, simplified. But climate change may pose a threat to Vermont’s main economic engine, the tourism industry, and the lifestyle that typifies Vermont.

VT Photo

Figure 1: Route 100 scenic byway in Vermont during fall demonstrating the beauty that leaf peepers come to see every year.

Vermont’s climate is changing, with increased temperatures and unpredictable precipitation patterns. The rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns are going to increase the intensity of floods and droughts in the state. The average annual precipitation in the Northeast increased 10 percent from 1895 to 2011, and precipitation from heavier storms increased 70 percent since 1958. For example, in 2011, Tropical Storm Irene was a 1-in-1,000 year storm that caused major flooding and damaged infrastructure across Vermont. After Irene, Vermont passed legislation to increase the government’s role in flood response and launched a series of websites to make residents aware of its programs. Some municipalities bought out homeowners in the worst devastation zones to prevent future damage. Roads and bridges where rebuilt to withstand future floods for similar sized storms. The state’s major utility, Green Mountain Power, is working to decentralize the grid to make power outages easier to contain and recover. Vermont responded with preparedness planning and a commitment to make Vermont strong, but this is more difficult because of the increasing uncertainty associated with climate change and its’ impacts.

Irene Stockbridge

Figure 2: In 2011, Tropical Storm Irene caused major flooding and damage across Vermont, including this section of Route 107 in Stockbridge, VT. These types of storms and damage are becoming more common because of climate change.

In the next century, the average precipitation is likely to increase during winter and spring, with no change in the summer or fall. These climate shifts will cause changes in Vermont’s ecosystems, agriculture industry, human health, and winter tourism, and will impact the lives of Vermonters.

The changing climate threatens Vermont’s ecosystems in a variety of ways. The increased temperatures cause wildflowers, trees, and migratory birds to bloom and arrive earlier during the springtime. Species that have not adjusted to these changes face increased competition for their primary food sources with species that have adapted to the warmer temperatures. Lastly, climate change could also change the temperatures of the streams, causing the streams to run dry and harm the brook trout and brown trout populations. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department (VFWD) are currently managing both types of trout with monitoring and evaluating the existing trout populations. The VFWD will participate in stocking techniques if they determine the fish populations are too high or low in certain areas.

Trout

Figure 3: Brook (top) and brown (bottom) trout populations are but some of the species in a Vermont ecosystem susceptible to impacts associated with climate change.

Climate change will also impact the Vermont agriculture industry, from cattle and dairy cows to maple syrup. Vermont’s dairy industry provides 70 percent of the state’s farm revenue, and climate change may reduce the output by $700 million. The higher temperatures will cause the cows to eat less, thus producing less milk. The warmer temperatures are shifting sugar maples farther into Canada, affecting both the maple syrup and tourism industry. The Vermont Climate Assessment project states that by the end of the century, the northeastern forest will be dominated by oaks and hickories, with the maples and other trees driven north. Both the dairy and agriculture industry are doing their part to help reduce the impacts of climate change. Vermont’s agriculture and dairy are mitigating greenhouse gas emission, reducing organic waste, and using methane recovery technology to do their part. Dairy and agriculture operations are doing this through the installation of anaerobic digesters on their land, which not only help mitigate GHGs and reduce organic waste, but also can provide a sustainable energy source for on-site needs.

Climate change will also amplify effects on the human health in Vermont, especially children, the elderly, the sick, and the poor. The warmer weather will increase disease-carrying insect populations and certain respiratory conditions. For example, ticks carrying Lyme disease will become active earlier with the warmer winters, lengthening the season and increasing the potential for transmission. The Vermont Department of Health is attempting to prevent the increased spread of disease through educational outreach on how to prevent tick bites.

Lastly, climate change will have a significant impact on winter tourism in Vermont. The warmer winters could bring more rain and less snow to Vermont. Declined snowfall amounts would shorten the ski season, severely impacting the economy. With shorter ski seasons, “ski resorts” are transitioning to “adventure resorts,” diversifying their portfolios and offering “off-season” activities (e.g., mountain biking, fly fishing, festivals, concerts) to make up for lost days.

Kids

Figure 4: As ski resorts become adventure resorts, activities and programs like mountain biking and summer camps bring fun to future generations of Vermonters and resiliency to one of Vermont’s top industries.

The very way of life that typifies Vermont is undergoing transition due to the already occurring, and anticipated, impacts of warmer winters, increasing precipitation, and droughts. In true Vermont fashion, the impacts of climate change have been met with a resilient and industrious response from various sectors. But this Brave Little State still has room to shift from a response-based approach to proactive planning so it can continue to thrive in the future.

Vermont may be the second least populated state in the US, but on climate change, Vermonters should keep a global perspective

The United States, alone in the world, will officially complete its exit from the Paris Agreement a little over a year from now, in November 2020. In the wake of the federal government’s retreat, a host of individual states formed the United States Climate Alliance. This coalition of subnational governments commits, notwithstanding national policy, to “implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement” as well as “track and report progress to the global community.”

Vermont is today one of 24 Climate Alliance states on board with the expressed goal to achieve an 18-25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 2005 levels by 2025. And that’s not the only commitment Vermont has made to participate in the global climate mitigation effort. This small state signed on to the “Under2 MOU” coalition, which includes over 150 regional, state, or county-level actors, in addition to a handful of states, aligned under the objective to reduce emissions to 83-96 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. Vermont also belongs to a conference of New England governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers that have committed to reductions 45-54 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.1

Alongside these collective commitments, Vermont has set itself statutory goals. A 2005 legislative directive of greenhouse gas goals called for reductions, compared to 2005, of 37 percent by 2012, 58 percent by 2028, and 79 percent by 2050 (“if practicable”). The 2012 goal passed unachieved,2 but this failure clearly did not squelch Vermont’s zeal for continuing to express its commitments to climate change mitigation. Importantly, the collaborative targets agreed to in the regional conference, the Climate Alliance, or Under2 are—in the mold of global negotiations—a collective effort. Vermont’s own ambitious carbon goals are but one piece of the puzzle in achieving these regional and group targets. The state’s statutory plans that parallel its outside commitments are a constructive expression of solidarity in actions taken to achieve them.

All of this is to illustrate that, even with the absence of the US as a force for climate action on the global stage, Vermont has a regional and international voice and its own similar role to play in establishing and communicating mitigation contributions. At the same time, Vermont is concededly small. When considered unattached from national US climate goals, perspectives on the state’s achievements become more difficult to frame: Should Vermont’s ability to decouple economic growth from emissions be compared to that in California3? What role does a state of less than 650,000 residents play in global climate change mitigation commitments?

On the global stage, dozens of governments for even less populous nation-states participate in negotiations, express their competencies and desires, and set ambitious targets. Perhaps it would be illustrative for Vermonters to consider, through the global perspective, where their small government is situated in the global picture as well as its relationship to national efforts. Concerned citizens here should continue to push their government to take ambitious action, and some international framing may be thought-provoking. Rather than considering its efforts individually, regionally, or on the backs of two dozen other democratic-leaning US states, how would Vermonters feel their state ought to comport itself if it were striving to mitigate climate change alongside global partners of similar size?

Take a couple of examples:

Here sits Vermont alone at the table. The state has a per capita GDP of around $50 thousand, and per capita carbon dioxide emissions of just under 10 metric tons/year. This puts Vermont on only slightly different comparative footing than the US at large (about $60 thousand and 16.5 tons), but it’s certainly a much smaller administrative and geographic entity.

Next to Vermont arrives Luxembourg. With a population of around 615,000, the state contains only slightly fewer people than Vermont. They are also some of the world’s richest; Luxembourg’s per capita GDP of about $115 thousand tops the charts. The nation belongs to the European Union, with its ambitious and binding emissions reduction targets, but it’s hardly a regional beacon of success. The country has lenient fuel taxes relative to much of the EU and per capita emissions of 16.5 metric tons of CO2 per year. And Luxembourg’s similar quantity of citizens is packed into about ten percent of Vermont’s land area, a useful image for those regularly traversing Vermont’s farm roads and interstate highways with a mind towards transportation and pollution targets.

Finally, enter the Solomon Islands.4 To Vermont’s approximately 160 miles of Lake Champlain shoreline, the Solomon Islands would add thousands more; the country contains some 2500 miles of coastline, but its land area is actually quite comparable, at around 11 thousand square miles to Vermont’s 9.5. This island nation obviously experiences a dramatically different climate, history and economic reality from the Green Mountain State, but with an only slightly smaller population, at around 600,000, it’s worth considering the similar administrative statures of the two entities. The Solomon Islands have a per capita GDP of a little over $2 thousand and annual per capita CO2 emissions of less than 1.5 tons. Additionally, with sea level rise and other effects, the Solomon Islands are poised to bear the brunt of looming climate change damages.

What if these several entities dominated the global climate change debate? They’d actually be a decent miniature of the dynamics we face in reality, especially if we added a rapidly developing area like Macau (population ~672,000). How would Vermonters feel about their state’s achievements and commitments if it they were held up against these three, similarly-sized global partners alone? Recent reports5 in Vermont have made clear some of the state’s shortcomings when it comes to concrete actions to achieve its stated mitigation goals. For example, Vermont would need to turn some 90,000 of the cars on its road electric if it were to meet its “Paris Agreement” target (there are currently fewer than 3,000). And unlike some of its neighboring states, Vermont’s energy-related emissions have continued to grow and remain significantly higher than 1990 levels.

Vermont may be inclined to see its climate mitigation contributions as featherweight compared to the heavy lifting of other progressive states like California or the now-abdicated responsibilities of the US as a whole. But Vermonters should not be shy to take a look at the engagement of other world governments responsible for areas of a similar size and population. Many of them have made similarly ambitious commitments and face similar struggles to conform their hopeful futures to activities that will avert our worst climatic consequences. It would behoove the citizens of this small state to keep a global perspective and to recognize that they ought to continue thinking, and most importantly acting, big.

The NEG/ECP pact compares its targets to 1990 levels, but Vermont guidance such as the Governor’s Climate Action Committee frequently reference these goals in terms of 2005 comparisons.

  1. Carbon emissions actually increased by 4% during that period instead. For more information on Vermont’s current emissions status and goals, see the Energy Action Network study linked below.
  2. The Energy Action Network report (below), among others, compares Vermont’s links between economic growth and carbon emissions to efforts in California, Quebec, and British Columbia, for example. How comparable are these economies in terms of scale?
  3. Sources of the above information and much more about the Solomon Islands response to climate change can be found in the “Nationally Determined Contributions” document they filed with the UNFCCC under the Paris Agreement. Vermonters should be keen to think about this and other similarly-sized countries’ stated efforts and challenges, as well as how they interact with other coalitions and larger negotiating blocks. Such perspective might lead Vermont to new ideas about how to engage without the United States doing the talking for it. The EU and US NDCs can also be viewed here and here.
  4. For more information about Vermont’s climate commitments, consider checking out the following reports:
    1. The Energy Action Network’s 2018 Annual Progress Report
    2. The Governor’s Climate Action Commission’s 2018 Recommendations
    3. Vermont Department of Environmental Quality’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory
    4. An Analysis of Decarbonization Methods in Vermont, requested by the state legislature in 2018

When Climate Change Really Stinks: Septic Impacts

What does climate change mean for your toilet? A new report from the International Panel on Climate Change has policymakers and journalists from around the world scrambling to decode the impacts of rising sea levels and growing storms. Among potential casualties: the venerable New England institution of the flushing toilet.

Around 55 percent of Vermont households rely on septic systems for waste treatment – that’s the highest level in the country – and about 50 percent of the homes in New Hampshire and Maine fall into the same category. But climate change threatens to make these systems obsolete, and to understand why, it’s necessary to understand how a septic system works.

Most septic systems come in three parts: a toilet, a tank, and a field. When you flush, the stuff in the toilet flows into the tank, where the solid material separates from the water. Then the water flows into a field, where remaining impurities are broken down naturally. Or that’s how it’s supposed to work.

If the field becomes totally saturated, either by spring slush or a fall flood, the system reverses itself. Water flows back from the field into the tank, and can back up all the way into your house, potentially causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage, not to mention odor, inconvenience, and health risks.

Though insulated from the impacts of warming oceans and rising seas, Vermonters have historically congregated along the state’s rivers and valleys, and they’re not totally beyond the reach of oceanic weather influences. In 2011, Hurricane Irene dumped up to 11 inches of water on Vermont, and caused $13.5 billion in damage across the U.S. That was bad enough, but over the next century, the Green Mountains stand to become a lot wetter.

Congress anticipates that as New England warms up, it will shift from a “cold, snowy winter” to a “warm, slushy” one. Goodbye, skiing, and goodbye, fall foliage. But solid waste is a less-popular topic of discussion. The 2018 National Climate Assessment predicts increased spring and fall rainfall across New England. Deforestation, as might result from climate change, can also lead to a rising water table. Together with the predictions of the IPCC report, these documents paint a bleak scenario for sanitation.

The IPCC predicts not only an increase in hurricanes, but an amplification of their severity, precipitation, and potentially their northerly range. It also forecasts an increase in extreme weather patterns, such as El Niño and the notably wet La Niña. More threats loom along New England’s 473-mile coastline, where rising seas (exceeding the global average) may be accompanied by more extreme wave heights and tidal events, raising the coastal water table. All these factors threaten to multiply floods.

Floods, in turn, multiply septic failures. A study in Connecticut found that just one inch of rainfall could significantly increase the likelihood of developing a stomach illness after swimming (see the National Climate Assessment), a finding consistent with the possibility of septic contamination.

Last year, the Conservation Law Foundation issued a report examining the effects of climate change on New England’s septic systems, and on the potential public-health impact of their failure.

“New England states are not adequately addressing rising groundwater and other climate change impacts when regulating the location, operation, or inspection of septic systems,” the report concluded. “Residents may not see the effluent, but they will smell it.” New England’s coastal states will be hardest-hit, but Vermont “is still expected to experience an increase in extreme precipitation events, flooding, increased rises in temperatures, and erosion, which could have serious consequences on infrastructure like septic systems.”

For now, the atlas at Flood Ready Vermont can show Vermonters whether their homes lie on a marked floodplain, and the EPA provides guidelines on handling a flooded septic tank.

39385808_2321021981273839_4156088544936329216_n

Around the U.S., septic systems have generally declined in popularity, but in New England they continue to be installed with many new homes. Infographic courtesy of CircleofBlue.org

Can Vermont’s Moose Population Take the Heat?

A friend of mine was walking along a secluded trail earlier this year when he came across a sad sight – a small, dead moose calf. The alarming part of this image was the moose’s apparent cause of death; the moose was covered in thousands of engorged ticks.

Everyone knows that it is a bad year for ticks, but these particular ticks are thriving and that is due to climate change. Winter ticks are one of a moose population’s greatest threats. They latch on to the moose and start draining the moose of its blood. This can greatly weaken and irritate the moose, and there is no easy way for the moose to rid itself of these pests. Their best bet is to rub against trees and try to scrape them off, but the moose often removes some of its precious insulating fur in the process.

This fur keeps the moose cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Their fur combined with their thick skin has allowed them to adapt to colder environments, not warm ones. If moose are subject to temperatures warmer than they can handle, they start to experience “heat stress.”

To fight off heat stress, a moose will have to cool off quickly. They do this by finding shady areas, finding cool water to soak in, or finding a windy place to lie down. However, if a moose is trying to stay cool, then it can’t spend valuable time foraging. If a moose spends all of its time trying to stay cool instead of foraging for winter, then it won’t have the strength to survive the harsh, cold months.

Not only is winter a concern, but if a cow (mature female moose) is not the proper weight, her offspring will also be undersized and disadvantaged from the start — assuming she can even carry a calf. Sometimes cows are so malnourished that they can’t reproduce, further limiting the moose population.

Moose start to experience “heat stress” at temperatures above 57°F in the summer and above 23°F in the winter. Heat stress also makes moose more vulnerable to winter ticks.

Unfortunately, the average temperature in Vermont during the summer 65°F is and during the winter is 19°F. As you can see, Vermont’s moose population is already outside this range due to the warmth here. With temperatures expected to rise on average by 9-13°F in the next 100 years, who knows if Vermont’s moose population will survive?

Climate change is causing shorter, warmer winters, which negatively impact moose in two significant ways.

First, shorter winters allow for a larger number of winter ticks to reproduce. Vermont is managing the moose and deer population (white tail deer being the primary host), but that management might not matter if winters keep getting easier for the ticks.

Secondly, climate change is affecting trees in the forest. Moose rely on shade from spruce, fir, and hemlock trees to keep cool in the summer and to provide cover in the winter. Climate change causes these species to be replaced by oak and hickory which do not provide the same benefits for the moose. These trees will still provide food and a surface for them to endlessly rub against until they strip themselves of their fur due to the ticks, but it will not provide them with the vital cover that they need.

Overall, the state of Vermont is doing a good job managing some of the symptoms of climate change. By keeping the winter tick population down, they are giving moose a fighting chance at sustaining a viable population in the area. However, it will take a collective effort by us all, not just the State, to tackle the underlying cause of a dying moose population in Vermont; climate change.

 

RGGI: An Experiment in Cap-and-Trade

The Kyoto Protocol entered into force in 2005 includes several parts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including a cap-and-trade mechanism aimed at developing a global market for reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). Several countries, regions, and states have experimented with various cap-and-trade mechanisms since Kyoto. Of note, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), established over ten years ago, is North America’s first mandatory cap-and-trade program for GHGs. The bipartisan program currently involves Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In 2020, New Jersey is expected to rejoin the program. The program requires electric power generators who produce 25 megawatts or more to purchase allowances for their CO2 emissions. The RGGI participating states sell their CO2 allowances in a regional auction.

The RGGI directly affects the local community of Vermont, as it is one of the states that has committed to the RGGI model. As recognized in the Regional Coordinate to reduce GHGs, the Vermont state legislature recognizes that “climate change poses serious potential risks to human health and terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems globally, regionally, and in Vermont.” 30 V.S.A. § 255. Due to the lack of federal action, Vermont, along with several other states, have taken action to reduce carbon emissions for the power sector. Local action is becoming more of a trend as communities around the United States are taking a stand to fight climate change where the federal action is absent.

The Agency of Natural Resources and the Public Utility Commission (PUC) have established a cap-and-trade program that limits and then reduces the total carbon emissions by major electric generating stations. Power generating stations allocate the carbon credits that Vermont receives. The PUC can “receive, hold, bank, and sell tradable carbon credits created under this program.” 30 V.S.A. § 255. Vermont’s auction proceeds are deposited into the electric efficiency fund created under 30 V.S.A. § 209(d)(3). By reinvesting the funds gained from the cap-and-trade mechanism, Vermont has been able to improve efficiency and lower the state’s carbon footprint. From a policy perspective, the RGGI has had a positive impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reinvesting in clean energy as well as increasing energy efficiency.

Across the participating states in New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the RGGI has generated over $3 billion USD from the cap-and-trade system, and most of this money has been reinvested in energy efficiency. One of the critiques of the RGGI is that the mechanism will not be truly successful until it makes meaningful reductions in carbon emissions. Most recently at the 45th RGGI Auction, the CO2 allowances sold for $5.20 per metric ton, which generated $68 million for reinvestments. Most recognize that the $5 price per metric ton of CO2 is far too low. The World Bank cites a necessary minimum price of at least $24-$30 per metric ton of CO2. California already has a price of $15 per metric ton of CO2. A minimum auction price is now being considered for RGGI. A minimum auction price is like a minimum acceptance bid on eBay. When there is low demand, the auction price can be supported by a floor price rather than the carbon selling for below market. If a minimum auction price had been agreed upon during the establishment of the RGGI, the mechanism could have likely generated much more revenue for cleaner energy. Despite its flaws, however, the RGGI is a well-established, transparent, cap-and-trade program that has had a positive impact on Vermont and the Northeastern United States.