This commentary is by Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
Climate change is all around us and yet, at times, can be hard to see clearly. The Earth’s climate is a complex, noisy system and is influenced by many factors, including human activities. Because of this, changes in our climate can feel small, or far away, while other threats feel more imminent. But the simple fact of the matter is the earth’s climate is changing, and Vermont’s climate is changing. These changes are complicated further by the fact that they are slow-moving and at times, hard to directly observe.
For example, do you remember the last two years when Lake Champlain completely froze over?
Although the surface of Lake Champlain froze over nearly every year in the early 1900s, it is now freezing much less frequently.
According to the Lake Champlain Basin Program, the Lake currently freezes about once every four years. Modeling suggests that by 2050, the Lake may freeze fully just once every decade. (And as far as the two most recent years, it was 2015 and 2018.)
Climate change is also affecting the composition of our forests. Northern hardwood species such as maple, yellow birch, and American beech are threatened by warmer and drier growing seasons, as well as pathogens, that can stunt growth and shift forest compositions toward warmer-climate species like oak and pine. Further impacts to our natural and working lands will be felt by changes in the water cycle, resulting in drought conditions in some areas while at the same time producing more frequent and intense rain events in other places.
This summer, both conditions were found in different parts of Vermont. Windham County experienced the most significant flooding since Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, while the East Berkshire Fire District in Franklin County was hauling in bulk water after its well ran dry.
These examples are the sorts of changes that can be hard to gain perspective on absent long-term datasets that demonstrate clear trends over time. But these trends are real. They are generally consistent with the predictions scientists have made about the changes we would expect as greenhouse gases trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere, producing warmer seasons and increasingly extreme weather.
It is also noteworthy that the impacts of climate change often fall disproportionately to the most vulnerable Vermonters — such as housing built on “less expensive” land because of its flood susceptibility. For example, during Tropical Storm Irene, 15 mobile parks and 561 mobile homes in Vermont were damaged or destroyed. Mobile homes make up a little more than 7 percent of all housing units in Vermont but were approximately 40 percent of homes affected by Irene.
The path that lies ahead will be challenging. It will require us to make changes in our lifestyle that are hard, or at least inconvenient, and will cost money. It will require coordinated action at the federal, state, and local level. Our individual emissions are the proverbial drop in a very large bucket — the global atmosphere. Yet, each of our inconsequential emissions become consequential when aggregated.
Last year, the Vermont Legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions Act. This Act codified requirements to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050. The law also established the Vermont Climate Council, charged with the responsibility of drafting the Climate Action Plan.
While efforts to reduce greenhouse gas pollution will be an important component of the Climate Action Plan, cutting our emissions is only one part of the multi-pronged approach that is needed. In addition to required emission reductions, the Act directs the Council to identify opportunities to make the Vermont landscape better able to withstand continued changes in climate. This is likely to include everything from strengthening roads and bridges to withstand heavier rains to conserving and enhancing the health of forested tracts and farmland so they can capture and store precipitation and carbon emissions in our agricultural soil and our trees. Cumulatively, each year Vermont’s 4.5 million acres of forestland sequester, or take in, about half of the state’s annual CO2 emissions. Our strategies and actions will include ways to both conserve and enhance these benefits as a necessary component of comprehensive climate action.
This Fall, the Vermont Climate Council is hosting a series of public events both online and in person. At each event, the Climate Council will invite the public to share how climate change is affecting them personally and ask them to weigh in on proposed strategies for the Climate Action Plan. This feedback will help further shape and refine the Action Plan that the Council will adopt on December 1. If you’re interested in joining an upcoming event, or if you’re not able to make an event but still want to share your feedback, visit www.climatechange.vermont.gov/getinvolved (link is external).
Successful climate action will require each of us — at the individual, local and state level — to do our part to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help prepare Vermont to respond to the impacts that a changing climate will have. The Climate Action Plan will help guide that work.