• Top climatologist warns global warming will hit Vermont hard
     | August 22,2006

    MONTPELIER – A federal scientist whose statements on global warming have put him at odds with the Bush administration is backing the state of Vermont and environmental groups in a lawsuit over the regulation of car emissions.

    In testimony, James Hansen, a top climatologist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, warns that the harmful impacts from global warming will hit Vermont's tourism-based economy harder than other states.

    Hansen testified in the lawsuit brought by car makers against the state that climate change due to human activity is rapidly reaching a "tipping point" where the impacts of the changes will be unpredictable and perhaps irreversible.

    "The occurrence of abrupt climate changes this century is practically certain if we continue with business-as-usual greenhouse gas emission," Hansen said in testimony. "The two largest and fastest growing sources of emissions are vehicle emissions and power plants."

    Hansen, who joined NASA in 1967, has become increasingly at odds with the administration over what he has said is an effort to keep him from talking publicly about climate change.

    "Of concern for the eastern United States is the possibility that warmer coastal areas may allow hurricanes to survive longer and strengthen, thus making this region vulnerable to storms that have long been associated more with the southeast United States," Hansen said in testimony given as a citizen, not as a paid expert.

    Meanwhile, another scientist has testified in the case that Vermont may face a more rapidly changing climate than the rest of the region and a greater economic impact through declines in income from maple syrup production, fall foliage tourism and fewer skiers.

    The case now in U.S. District Court in Burlington is over whether Vermont can regulate how much carbon dioxide is produced by cars sold within its borders. The case, along with lawsuits brought by auto manufacturers against two of the roughly 10 states around the country which have adopted the so-called California emissions standards, are in essence about whether states can establish their own standards outside federal regulations. At least one of those cases is likely to wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court, experts have said.

    State officials and environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation in the Northeast, have argued that states can regulate what cars are sold within state boundaries under clean air statutes.

    But car companies contend that the states are, in fact, trying to regulate fuel economy rather than pollution.

    "Auto manufacturers have committed to reducing greenhouse gases from our plants and our products," a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said Monday. "When it comes to setting fuel economy standards we believe the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sole authority."

    The association declined to comment on the specifics of the case or the testimony filed in the matter.

    Hansen's testimony supports the fact that Vermont's implementation of the emissions standards developed in California are for controlling pollution and are necessary to avoid climate change, said Anthony Iarrapino, a lawyer for Conservation Law Foundation in Vermont.

    The implementation of a more rigorous standard in States like Vermont, Rhode Island and California, also the subject of lawsuits by car makers, can improve the situation, Hansen said in testimony.

    "If such reductions are matched by other states, they may have a snowballing feedback effect leading to similar technologies and reduced emissions being adopted by other states, and in turn such actions in the United States are likely to affect technologies and emissions in other countries. If, on the contrary, such reduced emissions are not initiated in the United States, other countries will be less disposed to initiate their own greenhouse emission reductions," he said.

    It is not clear if the Vermont case will be the one in which the issue is decided.

    "This is one of the three battlegrounds for this issue in the country right now," Iarrapino said.

    However, Vermont may have more at stake than other states, according to another scientist who has testified in the lawsuit.

    In part that is because Vermont's rate of climate change seems to be faster than neighboring states, said professor Barrett Rock of the University of New Hampshire, a paid expert witness for the state of Vermont.

    Annual temperatures have increased by between 1.6 degrees and 3 degrees, depending on the study, while winters have warmed even more, Rock said in his testimony.

    "Vermont's warming was approximately double the regional warming, both in annual and winter-time trends," Rock said.

    And Vermont's dependence on maple sugaring, skiing and foliage tourism make the state more vulnerable than other parts of the country to the impacts of climate change, he added.

    Indeed it may already be having an effect, he said.

    "Prior to 1943, Vermont syrup production ranged between 1.0 and 1.5 million gallons, with good production years matched to cold years between January and April," Rock said. "1960 marked the beginning of a continuing decline in syrup production, with even good years seldom topping 0.5 million gallons."

    "At the same time that Vermont maple syrup production was rapidly declining Canadian production was dramatically increasing," he added. Before 1945, 80 percent of the world's syrup production came from the United States, he testified. Now 80 percent of the syrup comes from Canada.

    Fall foliage is similarly dependent on the right weather conditions, which may be affected by climate change, as is the ski industry, Rock said. A New Hampshire study found that as winters have "become milder and more unpredictable ski areas have lost revenue, the larger ski areas began to market themselves as 'four season resorts'," Rock said.

    "As winters have become milder and more unpredictable, the Vermont and New Hampshire ski industries have declined," he said.

    The state has taken its cold and snowy winters and made an advantage of them, Iarrapino pointed out.

    "That is an advantage that is at stake if we don't do something to reverse the climate change Dr. Rock has identified through the data," he said.

    The Vermont case, now in the discovery phase, is slated to come to court next spring, but given the number of cases and the number of players involved it is not clear how soon the emissions standards lawsuit will be resolved, Iarrapino said.

    "What you see is a lot of legal resources amassed on either side of the dividing line," he said. "It is difficult to sort all of that out when you have a lot of cooks in the kitchen."

    Contact Louis Porter at louis.porter@timesargus.com.

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