A group of legislators and others gathered for a news conference in South Burlington on Wednesday to call attention to the continuing urgency of the climate crisis and to focus attention on actions to address it.
One of the important unfinished tasks of state government is to enhance efforts on the problem of thermal efficiency in homes and other buildings in Vermont. It has been a priority of Gov. Peter Shumlin, but problems in funding an ambitious weatherization program have slowed progress.
The reality of the climate crisis is that action must occur on all fronts in order for humans to maintain hope of averting the worst effects of the changing climate. As speakers noted Wednesday, some of the negative effects of climate change are already upon us. The droughts and wildfire plaguing the West and Midwest, as well as the floods that have hit the East — these are indicators that climate change is already here and that talk of coping with change is no longer theoretical.
The nature of our response to these threats has changed over time. Early in President Obama’s first term there was much focus on international climate policy, leavened by the hope that the nations of the world could strike a grand bargain for curbing carbon emissions.
The big concerted attack on climate change that might have enlisted a united front of the United States, China, Europe, India and other nations was not to be. Talks in Copenhagen produced little. China and the United States are the leaders among nations pouring carbon into the atmosphere at a rate that is speeding climate change beyond the expectations of scientists.
But the failure of the grand bargain has not halted action. Instead, a sort of guerrilla war has begun against the great carbon-producing machinery of the modern world, with efforts continuing among local governments, states, business and citizen groups. These have yet to combine into an effort whose scale could yet halt the seemingly inexorable progress toward disaster. But these are what we have.
At the local level, some of the most visible action is coming from the state’s largest utility, Green Mountain Power. GMP is mounting pilot projects for community solar installations that would allow homeowners to buy into solar power and to reap the economic benefits. It has also announced a pilot project allowing for the installation of heat pumps for the heating of homes. Heat pumps fueled by electricity could cut into the use of fuel oil for heating, which could create savings on fuel bills and cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly.
Thermal efficiency remains a major goal. Fuel consumption can be cut in half when houses are insulated and otherwise buttoned up effectively. Energy-efficiency programs have already created major savings for homeowners and provided employment for businesses in Vermont. Our energy-efficiency efforts could be stepped up in a big way if we found the money to pay for it. It is a case of spending now to save later.
The paralysis of government at the national level is caused in part by the power of special interests, such as the fossil fuel industry and the congressmen it owns. At the local level, policymakers can ignore the blandishments, deceptions and threats of lobbyists to chart a course on climate change that has the support of the people. To keep the people informed about the dangers of climate change and hopeful about the possibilities for action is one of the duties of leadership. Obama, who is trapped in the web of Washington politics, can do only so much. The Vermont political and business leaders who continue to make climate change a focus of policy have recognized that the ball is in their hands, as it is in the hands of people at the local level all around the world.
Gradually, the way we live, work, travel and grow food will be forced to change, whether we want it to or not. Better to recognize the direction we are headed and shape our future in a positive way.
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