Author Archives: BlueCOP

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.

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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.

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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.

People Displaced by Climate Change is a Worldwide Problem

Currently, people around the world are being forced from their homes by the man-made monster known as climate change. The Status of Climate Change Litigation, a UN report, estimates that anywhere from 25 million to 1 billion people will be displaced by 2050 due to Climate Change. The World Bank estimates that 148 million people will be displaced from Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America alone by 2050 due to climate change. At first glance, one may wonder why they should care if they do not currently reside in an area that will be severely affected by climate change. But you should. Displaced people will have to relocate somewhere, and this will have a large impact wherever they decide to relocate to.

This is becoming a more pressing problem in the United States.  The U.S. has entered into the Compact of Free Association with three small island nationals in the Pacific Ocean to allow their citizens to enter and leave the United States without a visa and provide financial assistance. In return for the ability to come and go, the U.S. may access the physical land and water surrounding the island as well as provide defense for the islands. These compact islands are the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federal State of Micronesia and Palau.

According to 2018 census estimates, there are currently more than 38,000 compact migrants currently residing in American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Hawaii, and Guam. Even though this number may seem small when it is compared to the total U.S. population of 327.2 million, the compact migrant population has a significant impact on the rest of the country. Congress now faces the challenge of funding for the growing number of migrants due to climate change.

A total of 4,325 migrants from the Marshall Islands now reside in Springdale, Arkansas.This creates 2 major problems. First, the city of Springdale is does not mimic the terrain of the Marshall Islands, so it is difficult for people to transition. Second, Arkansas must accommodate these displaced peoples. The state officials of Arkansas claimed that they have spent “around $51 million in costs for education, health and public safety services to compact migrants for 2004 to 2010.

Under the compact, the U.S. must allocate $30 million per year to areas highly affected by migration from the compact nations: Hawaii, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa. The $30M impact funding expires in 2023, which means that Congress will have to renegotiate the financial aspects of the compacts with each island nation. But in the meantime, some residents will have make up their mind on whether to migrate or remain in their home country.  We can expect more compacts with the growing number of people being displaced by climate change. This mass exodus has large effects on the countries that take in the migrants, and governments needs to be ready to support these people.

 

On Your Mark, Get Set, GO! Who Will Win the Race Between Sports and Climate Change

Everyone knows that climate change has impacted coastal living, contributes to extreme weather events, and is a threat to our water and food security.  But one impact that flies under the radar is the impact of climate change on sports and recreation.  There are about two hundred sports with international recognition and an estimated eight thousand sports played worldwide.  Everyone from children to Olympic athletes to fans are experiencing just how disruptive climate change can be on the sports they play and love.

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Figure 1: Runners in the women’s marathon at the Corniche during the IAAF World Athletics Championships

The increase in temperature is playing a vital role in the enjoyment of sports. Organizations, like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), have already adapted to increased temperatures to protect athletes and spectators. During the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Qatar, races were scheduled at midnight to avoid the worst of the heat.  However, the later start could not avoid the humid, 105°F heat, causing 28 of the 68 runners to drop out and 30 runners to require medical assistance (one required brief hospitalization).  The temperature at midnight is about 15°F above the Qatar’s average nighttime temperature of 90°F. In response to what happened in Qatar, the IOC has moved the 2020 Olympic marathon from Tokyo to Sapporo.   Sapporo is located in the mountainous region of Northern Japan and is expected to have temperatures about FIFA has also moved the timing of the 2020 World Cup. To help mitigate the impact of heat on their athletes, for the first time since their inaugural season 92 years ago, the 2020 World Cup will be a winter, not summer event.     Because of the increased temperatures, winter sports are also at risk.  Higher temperatures decrease snowfall amounts and increase melting ice and snow.  The effects of climate change on sports are not only seen through increased temperatures.  In Britain, increased precipitation makes fields soggy and unplayable, affecting sports like golf, cricket, and soccer.  Droughts, heavy rains, increased temperatures, and sea level rise are limiting sporting venues worldwide.

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Figure 2: The Old Course at St. Andrews golf course in Scotland has been flooded because of sea level rise and stronger storms

In 2018, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the sports sector launched the Sports for Climate Action Framework at COP24 in Poland.   This collaborative framework unites sports organizations, athletes, teams, and fans to raise awareness and preform actions that meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.  The UN Sports for Climate Action Framework has two main goals; first, to create a clear pathway for the global sports community to combat climate change, and second, to use sports to facilitate global climate action.  The Sports for Climate Action plan lays out three steps for climate action: (1) to measure and understand, (2) take action, and (3) educate and inspire.

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Figure 33: Andy Hunt, CEO of the World Sailing Federation addresses the panel discussion ‘Sports for Climate Action’ at COP24 in Katowice

An organization’s actions need to focus on mitigating their impact on climate change.  To do this, organizations must plan to avoid creating GHG emissions, use less resources, find cleaner and efficient substitutions, and report their carbon footprint and related actions.  An organization must measure their carbon footprint to provide a baseline that shows how activities impact the climate.  Understanding their carbon footprint leads to better decision-making to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  Most importantly, an organization needs to educate and inspire people to do their part to mitigate climate effects and raise awareness about sustainability.

Many organizations, like the IOC, have contributed to the climate crisis through GHG emissions from travel, energy use, venue construction, and other means. The IOC and the other sporting organizations that have signed onto the Sports for Climate Action initiative recognize that sports organizations have a responsibility to reduce impacts and take steps to adapt to the impacts of climate change.  The IOC has emerged as a leader in this initiative and plans to leverage the power of sports to support their efforts of incentivizing and supporting National Olympic Committees and international Olympic Committees of their tangible climate actions.  Also, with the help of their Official Carbon Partner Dow, during the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 Olympics, they have worked with industry and decision makers to adopt low carbon technologies through material selection and manufacturing that have led to sustainable changes after the games ended.

Compared to climate change’s more devastating effects, its impact on sports seem inconsequential. However, it is something that affects everyone in a noticeable way.  Sports connect people from different countries, social class, and backgrounds. Amassing millions of fans around the world, the loss of sports would be felt deeply.  But organizations like the IOC are recognizing that change is necessary, both to respond to the impacts of climate change on sporting events, and to lessen the industry’s role in contributing to this harm.

Sea Level Rise & Food Security

Today, nearly a third of the global population is food insecure.

The United Nations defines the four pillars of food security as:

  1. The availability of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality, supplied by domestic production or imports
  2. Access by individuals to adequate resources for acquiring appropriate foods for a nutritious diet
  3. Utilization of food through adequate diet, clean water, sanitation, and health care to reach a state of nutritional well-being where all physiological needs are met
  4. Stability, because to be food secure, a population, household or individual must have access to adequate food at all times
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350 year old Cornfield in the Chesapeake Bay submerged in salt water like never before. South Florida, North and South Carolina, and Louisiana have each reported that SLR has threatened wetlands in low lying areas and that SLR has disturbed groundwater and vegetation dynamics.

Climate change threatens each pillar of food security. Without immediate climate action, global food insecurity is only going to worsen. Food security, especially in low lying coastal areas and small islands, is intrinsically tied to climate change and sea level rise (SLR). Sea level rise serves as a threat amplifier, especially in regions of the world with dense coastal populations and heavy reliance on coastal agricultural infrastructure.

Global average SLR is the most confidently predicted climate change threat. Mainstream media tends to center its coverage and reporting on the impact of SLR on coastal inundation and extreme weather events. This is fair: entire communities face the threat of hurricanes, tidal waves, and erosion, and are rapidly being forced to consider their options to protect their resources, adapt to the threat, or retreat from the coast. By 2100, our world will watch many communities, even nations, disappear entirely. However, climate change and SLR threaten our world in another, systemic fashion: food security.

As the impacts associated with SLR worsen (e.g., erosion, land loss, flooding, salinization, extreme weather events, cascading impacts), and as patterns of tropical and extratropical cyclones, rising air and sea temperatures, and changing rainfall patterns continue, the stability of our food systems will crumble. Coastal communities who are highly vulnerable to SLR will see the greatest change in agricultural patterns— mainly, salt-water intrusion and increased soil salinity, coupled with floods and waterlogging from increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events. Small farming communities in warming coastal regions will feel the greatest strain on food security.

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Caption: The global impact of climate change on crop productivity will be significant. This simulation demonstrates the change in yield of 11 crops by 2050 averaged across green house gas emissions scenarios.

According to the FAO, the Asia-Pacific region is especially vulnerable to impacts of SLR and severe weather events on food security—today the Asia Pacific region houses more than half of the world’s undernourished people (about half-a-billion). Studies project that Bangladesh will experience a 15.6% reduction in rice yield as a result of increased soil salinity in coastal areas. Vietnam has also reported a decrease in agricultural production stemming from the impact of strong storm surge, rising temperature, and variability in rainfall pattern.

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“Due to sea-level rise, salt water can intrude 30 to 40 kilometers inland, followed by high water levels in the riverbeds and increased sedimentation in canals and flooded plains”

Speaking specifically to small island nations, climate change and SLR will have an especially dire impact on local food security. Communities that rely on seafood as a primary source of protein will see adverse impacts as a result of sea warming and acidification. These changes impact the migratory and mating patterns of fish, threatening the viability of fisheries that communities have long depended on. Moreover, the most recent IPCC report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate predicts a significant reduction in the biomass of marine animals across the food web, as well as a reduction in maximum catch size potential of fisheries. The IPCC predicts that the decrease in seafood availability will have significant impact on Small Island Developing states.

SLR also poses the threat of saltwater incursion into existing agricultural lands in small islands and coastal communities. Changes in precipitation patterns combined with sea level rise will impact soil salinization and agricultural production, which will result in diminished food and water security. Wetlands are complex, eco-hydrological environments where ground and surface water interact with climate, tidal influence, topography and vegetation. SLR interrupts this relationship, resulting in abnormal soil salinity and vegetation shifts. Overall, studies have found that crop productivity is expected to decrease in low latitude and tropic regions with local land and sea temperature increases.

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In Southeast Asia, the issue of food security is crucial. The region expects the middle class to grow by 60 million people in just five years. Beyond Southeast Asia, to feed the growing population of the world, global food calorie yield will have to increase 50 % by 2030.

Combined, the impact of climate change and SLR on fishery viability and agricultural production will have dire social, economic, and ecological impacts on coastal and small island communities. Communities will face adverse impacts on nutritional health, small farm income, state sovereignty, ecosystem health, land tenure, food price and market stability, and fresh-water competition. Communities depending on small scale coastal agriculture will be forced to import food, at high cost. Overall, decreases in agricultural and fishery production will affect income, livelihood and food security of marine-resource dependent communities. The IPCC concluded that long-term loss and degradation of marine ecosystems compromises the ocean’s role in cultural, recreational, and intrinsic values important for human identity and well-being. These findings regarding food security only serve to increase the urgency with which the world must tackle carbon and GHG emissions, and pour funding into efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change and SLR.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Seagrass – The Unsung Hero

Seagrasses are found up and down the coast of the United States and in many other parts of the world. Together they form meadows that are productive ecosystems, providing food and shelter to a wide range of animals. One important, often overlooked, function of seagrasses relates to their impact on the world’s climate.

One of climate changes greatest challenges is limiting the amount of carbon that is in our atmosphere. One mitigation technique is to revitalize or create carbon sinks. Carbon sinks fight climate change by capturing and absorbing carbon dioxide and preventing it from being released into the atmosphere. Seagrasses act as a surprisingly efficient carbon sink.

Seagrass meadows, per square kilometer, are able to store up to 83,000 metric tons of carbon; whereas a typical terrestrial forest, per square kilometer, is only able to store about 30,000 metric tons of carbon. That means seagrass meadows can sequester over twice the amount of carbon a terrestrial forest can given the same amount of space.

Unfortunately, seagrass meadows only occupy less than 0.2% of the world’s oceans. Despite their underwhelming presence, they are still responsible for over 10% of all carbon sequestered in the ocean per year.

Seagrass meadows’ ability to act as a carbon sink are threatened in a couple different ways.

One major threat to seagrass meadows is over-exploitation. Sharks that routinely patrol these ecosystems are being unsustainably exploited for a number of reasons. Some fishermen catch sharks solely for their fins. The fins are then sold to make shark fin soup. Other times, sharks are incidentally the product of bycatch. Whatever the reason, shark populations are drastically declining, and are becoming more threatened with each take.

SharkSharks are important to the seagrass meadows because they feed on the animals below them in the food chain. As apex predators, they feed on animals that would otherwise eat the seagrass. The sharks maintain a healthy ecosystem by limiting the populations of their prey, thus allowing the meadows to remain at healthy levels.

Another major threat to seagrasses are heatwaves. Seagrasses are temperature sensitive, and a strong heatwave (which are becoming more abundant with the rise of extreme weather due to climate change) can seriously decimate an entire meadow. Once the seagrass density drastically dips, it is difficult for the meadow to recover because it creates increased competition for all the fish, dugong, and other animals that eat the seagrass.

The lack of sharks compounds the rebounding issues. Without the threat of sharks patrolling the meadows, animals are able to further decimate the seagrasses because there is no threat of predation.

One potential solution would be to follow in the footsteps of Palau. In 2009, Palau became the first country to create a shark sanctuary and ban shark fishing in its exclusive economic zone. This move protected about 240,000 square miles of ocean (about the size of France). The presence of sharks maintains the health of the ecosystem and allows the seagrasses to rebound in the event of a decline due to some climatic event, like a heat wave.

This will not provide the solution to climate change. However, protecting sharks, and thus protecting seagrasses, will hopefully allow for the expansion of an efficient carbon sink, creating a positive feedback cycle and increasing its positive effects.

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.

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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

How Renewable Energy Can Help Small Island Nations Like Palau Achieve Energy Access and Sustainable Development

Rising seas, intense storms, increased droughts, and fires are just some of the issues that people in small island nations worry about on a day-to-day basis; on top of just trying to survive in this world. Mothers must worry about whether their children will have food, shelter, proper satiation, and if the lights will turn on (if that’s even an option for them). Think about how different your own life would be without the electricity we have—if the lights didn’t work, your computer didn’t exist, or not being able to store your food in refrigerators. This is the reality for more than 1.2 billion people, who have little or no access to energy. When access to energy increases, so does access to clean water, education, and more reliable jobs, which improves the overall health of people.

Small island nations are trying to change the narrative when it comes to energy. Energy is vital to our survival in the 21st century. Traditional sources like coal, oil, and gas are not practical solutions to solve a small island nation’s need for energy because they put other critical sectors at risks, such as agriculture and fisheries, tourism, and other industries. Also, because islands are rather isolated, their markets would not benefit from affordable prices that traditional energy markets bring. The isolated market issue is one of the many constraints that small island nations face when it comes to energy access. Other constraints include limited natural resources, environmental vulnerability, and dependency on foreign sources of energy.

Countries like Palau have minimal natural resources compared to larger developing countries in Eastern Africa. As an alternative to using traditional sources of energy, many developing countries rely on biomass as their source of energy. Countries in Eastern Africa have access to a large amount of biomass, whereas small island nations’ biomass is not available as an alternative to oil and gas. Also, there is pressure on these countries to not use biomass because of the adverse effects on the environment. An alternative for small island nations is to enter the renewable energy market.

Small island nations generally have an abundance of renewable energy sources from rivers, waterfalls, wind, solar, wave power, and geothermal power. Now is the ideal time for small island nations to invest in renewable energy because the costs have dropped dramatically over the years. This allow small island nations to meet their electricity needs, reduce energy costs, create employment opportunities, broaden energy access, and set them on the path to energy self-sufficiency.

Palau is a small island nation in the Pacific who has been making noise in the headlines when it comes to renewable energy. The island nation’s population—a little over 20,000 people—currently rely on diesel fuel from other countries to meet their energy needs. The people of Palau pay twice as much per kilo-watthour ($0.24) than the average American when they only make an average of $5,000 per year. In 2018, the country announced it plans to upgrade their entire electrical grid to rely entirely on renewable energy. Palau has a current project with ENGIE and Gridmarket to build the world’s largest solar power-energy storage microgrid with 100 MW of power generation and distribution capacity without spending a dime of taxpayers’ money. Currently, Palau is on target to meet its 45% goal by 2025 renewable energy goal five years ahead of schedule. The second phase of the project is set to be completed by the end of 2019, allowing Palau to derive 100% of its electrical needs from renewables. This initiative has decreased the cost of energy to the lowest it has ever been in Palau’s history.

Overall, while small island nations have constraints to traditional energy sources and limited access to natural resources, renewable energy may be the perfect solution to meet their energy needs, while also creating a stable economy and development.