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Jim Stiles: Vermont must adapt to climate change while also cutting emissions – vtdigger.org

This commentary is by Jim Stiles of St. Albans, who is mostly retired, but still works part time distributing local food products in northwestern Vermont, helps to craft weatherization policy, conducts small-scale research on high-quality compost, and is assisting in small-scale field trials of cutting-edge, soil-healthy farming techniques in Vermont.

The fight to limit global warming to reasonable levels has been lost. It is generally accepted that a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C will cause serious harm, and that 430 parts per million of CO2 will take us to this 1.5C rise. 

Last month, CO2 levels peaked at 421 ppm, an increase of 1.8 ppm over the previous year. At this rate, it will take five years to reach 430 ppm. Although it may not be literally impossible to cut global greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid this, the writing on the wall is clear: Serious climate trouble is on the way.

With the world (including Vermont) having failed to limit greenhouse gas emissions, we now face the consequences. Things are going to get harder. It would be grossly irresponsible to respond to climate change based on the assumption that greenhouse gas emissions will stay within reasonable limits. 

We absolutely should still do our share of the crucial work of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, we must be careful in how we go about doing so, since we must now also protect ourselves from climate change’s impacts, all while also addressing other societal priorities.

Vermont should be a leader in the effort to adapt to climate change while we also cut greenhouse gas emissions and address other needs for change. To do these things well, Vermonters must now figure out what success looks like in this new, more complex effort.

Our path to this success must now run through climate adaptation. With serious climate impacts a virtual certainty, climate adaptation becomes more crucial with every day that passes. Vermont must become a place where Vermonters can prosper — live well — despite climate change. This is important for the well-being of all Vermonters, and crucial for the future of the youngest Vermonters. 

Plans must not only include current Vermonters and their families but also climate migrants who will settle here. We must find ways to live and prosper in a hotter, wetter, unstable climate, while also cutting greenhouse gas emissions and fixing other problems we face.

Although this may seem hard (and it will be), we should take hope from the fact that, unlike many places around the world, Vermont has a path to a good future.

I believe that the No. 1 requirement for climate adaptation is getting communities right. On this score, Vermont does reasonably well. Vermont’s traditional pattern of small towns is compatible with good stewardship of the land. However, current development tends toward sprawl, with its attendant increase in greenhouse gas emissions, fragmentation of ecosystems, and massive impacts on the health and safety of both people and wildlife. Sprawl takes Vermont in a bad direction.

When it comes to community-related policy priorities, Vermont also does pretty well. Current policy embraces well-nucleated, dense communities — the sort of walkable communities that cut the need for cars. However, there are still some holes in state policy. It currently focuses on making improvements in existing communities that are already relatively walkable. This narrow approach should be broadened to address how all communities can achieve vibrance and walkability. We should also consider how to create new walkable communities.

We need to understand how best to add services and amenities to make communities better. Vermont should help assure that basic services like groceries, hardware, and good alternatives to car ownership for transportation are available in all communities. Once basic services are available, more amenities, such as restaurants and shopping, can further reduce the need for transportation. We need more and better options.

Another requirement is to get agriculture right. Industrial agriculture in Vermont is energy-intensive, requires massive imports of machinery and chemicals, devastates the soil, and does not serve other Vermonters particularly well. 

Developments in soil-healthy agriculture hold promise for changing much of this while cutting production costs, increasing farms’ profitability, improving the quality of produce, reversing the environmental harms from today’s industrial agriculture, and integrating better with the needs of Vermonters for fresh, local food. Just as with getting communities right, getting agriculture right is going to take time and a great deal of effort, but there is good reason for hope for everyone concerned.

The obvious organization to lead these and other adaptation efforts is the Vermont Climate Council. Unfortunately, the council has been slow to step up to the challenges of adaptation. Having essentially updated Vermont’s greenhouse gas reduction plan last year, the climate council should now undertake a serious effort to tackle climate adaptation.

One of the great incidental benefits of good climate adaptation is that it cuts greenhouse gas emissions emissions. In fact, it appears that these cuts can be greater than is currently projected for Vermont’s greenhouse gas reduction efforts. Advocates of simply reducing these emissions are correct when they point out that cutting emissions delivers significant incidental contributions to sustainable prosperity. 

However if we focus more on sustainable prosperity through climate adaptation, we should be able to do better at both sustaining prosperity and cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It is time for Vermont to get serious about climate adaptation.

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