It’s amazing how, after a few nice days, our memories of the recent weather catastrophes fade. Of course we are still reminded of the recent flooding through newspaper pictures of road construction, driving past the sad washed-out lane on southbound Interstate 89 in Richmond and the stunted cornfields in our bottom lands. But a heat wave grips the nation as I write, these “nice” days will pass, and the climate catastrophes will return all too soon.
My piece recently on “the new normal” tried to set the stage for a weather-determined future that is much different from the past. So, to the extent that we have all been touched by the recent deluges, it is time to change our passive responses and gird ourselves for the hard work of building a different, more hopeful, future.
Until now we have waited for the powers in government and business to actually do something. The traditional sources of authority and response have failed us. As we look out at the drowned fields and the poor condition of the hay crops, our pounded gardens and the washed-away roads, we now know we need to adopt a different response. When even Gov. Shumlin has to tell Vermonters to get out now and enjoy the summer — literally, to make hay while the sun shines — it’s evident that something profound has changed.
It seems to me that we are now in a position like the hero in the “Supercop” movie who battles bad guys as a dispassionate professional. But when his family is kidnapped, the fight becomes personal. So it is with us as climate change. We have been asking for the professionals of government and businesses to act responsibly for a better future. But now, our homes, our towns and our children’s future are being destroyed in front of us. The time for action is now. And it is up to each of us to act.
So what can we, as individuals, do? As I mentioned before, our choices for action lie in two areas: mitigation and adaptation.
Mitigation is the work needed to keep this crisis from getting ever so much worse. We need to make smarter personal consumption choices; we need to demand political and economic action to change policies, subsidies and habits.
Adaptation, on the other hand, is about making immediate changes to our homes, our property, our infrastructure and our planning to take into account the realities of ongoing and worsening climate change. It’s things like rebuilding our road systems to survive regular flooding, and a bunch of other choices that will be controversial to say the least. But we need to start making those changes now while we still have the capacity and the resources to act.
There is an ideological war between activists on these issues. Many say it is too late and the only thing we can do is adapt. Others say we can’t give up on mitigation or it will only get so much worse. My position is to say we need to do both aggressively.
After my last piece, friends and associates offered suggestions in each of these areas, and I received enough ideas to fill at least a couple more articles. So today I will introduce the broad areas of action in each of these approaches. Next I will delve into each area separately with even more concrete suggestions on action.
In redesigning our built environment to make it sustainable over a long future of climate change disruptions we are going to have to keep one idea in mind that is the very opposite of the understanding people had when they first built our towns and roads. The old idea was that the future will look much like yesterday and we could count on predictable variations in the weather. Now we need to imagine a future that looks nothing like yesterday. To move into that future we need to redesign our landscape, and we need to do it soon.
This is going to be hard for a lot of folks to hear, but one can make the case that much of the built landscape in Vermont is unsustainable in our future monsoon-plagued climate. Our quaint villages in the river valleys don’t have the resources or desire to build levee systems to protect them from regular flooding. This means that many of our village centers, originally built near water power, will need to be moved out of the valley floors.
In this overly wet future, our secondary back roads and utility services may be too fragile to survive constant flooding. So we may have to stop maintaining certain fragile roads and utilities in order to take care of those sections which have an economic purpose.
The same is true for our farms. The river bottoms may no longer be stable for yearly crops. We may have to reimagine our hillsides sculpted to support a different type of crop. This is a future where 100-year floods happen several times a decade, and that constant moisture will prevent traditional crops like hay from being always available.
Next time I will delve more deeply into the prospects for redesigning the landscape and ways that we can talk about this at our town meetings and public forums.
Simply put, we have to act now to prevent future worsening of the climate prospects for our children and theirs. Remember, even with an impossible goal of radically ending current excess carbon dioxide production now, we still have 30 years of climate decline already baked in the cake. So it is going to take a lot of will power and perseverance to see ourselves through to a noticeable future change.
A lot of people say, “So why bother?” Even if we do everything right here in Vermont, we are so small and off the public radar that we can’t make a difference anywhere. But these folks are wrong. Our smallness is our strength. We can make policies and collective decisions here much more rapidly than the large states. If these changes start working here, then others around the country will start noticing.
So what can you do? Let’s start with some easy stuff. Want to make a real dent in your carbon output? Weatherize your home. Done right, this work can save half to three-quarters of the oil or propane you burn. Then, walk, bike or use public transport one time a week, assuming it is available where you live. Just getting used to doing things without a car will pay big dividends in the future.
The other mitigation strategy is to start demanding that our governments take climate change seriously. Don’t assume FEMA will be there to bail us out in the future, so we have to start acting now. Demand that the state institute a carbon tax on heating fuels, which will be used to subsidize home weatherization work. Join with 350VT in stopping the possible use of the antiquated pipeline to push tar sands oil through the Northeast Kingdom.
This list just gets longer — and it is all stuff you can do, if you assume that climate change is now a personal challenge. So take it personally. We needn’t fight or put our heads in the sand; we can actively do things to make life better for the planet, our community, ourselves and our kids and grandkids.
Dan Jones is an organizer for Vermonters for a New Economy and serves on the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee.
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