Most Vermonters would agree that the varied seasons are an essential backdrop to the quality of life in Vermont: the breathtaking colors of our forests in the fall, the winter snows that let us ski, sled and warm up in front of the fire, maple syrup and muddy roads in the spring and cooling off in the lake during the warm summer months. But, over the many decades that I have lived here, I can already see that Vermont’s seasons have changed.
According to the 4th National Climate Assessment which was issued last week by the U.S. Global Change Research program, a consortium of hundreds of scientists from 13 federal agencies, my observations are correct. The seasons in the Northeast are different than they were even a few decades ago, with milder winters and earlier spring conditions, hotter summers and later frosts in the fall. And it’s not likely to change any time soon.
The Northeast is heating up faster than other parts of the contiguous United States, in part because winters are warming three times faster than summers. By 2035 — nearly two decades before the rest of the world —Vermont and our neighboring states will be 3.6°F (2°C) warmer on average than during the pre-industrial era. Note that these projections hold true even if the world drastically reduced its emissions. This means we will continue to see a shift in our seasons.
This is important information for Vermont government, communities and businesses. Because Vermont’s identity, ecosystems and economy are closely tied to its four distinct seasons, we need to plan now for the changes to come. We are up to the task.
The last National Climate Assessment, issued in 2014, noted that the Northeast will continue to experience greater rainfall and more intense storms as the climate warms. This confirmed our experience with Tropical Storm Irene. In response to this information, Vermont entered into an extended period in which we assessed the risks of floods to communities, businesses, ecosystems and public health. I am proud of Vermont’s fast action to adjust our regulatory and infrastructure investment policies and to provide decision-making tools to help local governments assess and mitigate the flood risk in their communities. Although we still have work to do to build flood resilience in Vermont, we must make a similar effort with the new information from the most recent climate assessment.
Vermont’s economy relies on tourism, farming, forestry and outdoor recreation, all of which are at risk from climate change. Less distinct seasons will also impact our forests and ecosystems and will affect human health by contributing to the spread of mosquito- and tick-borne illnesses.
The climate assessment warns us that the cost of non-action is high and that we need to act quickly to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions while we also prepare to adapt to the changes that have already begun to impact the health of our families, businesses and communities. For Vermont, this means doubling down on our commitment to a clean energy economy – with a particular focus on transitioning our transportation and home heating sectors away from fossil fuels. We need to continue our efforts to build resilience to flood risk. And, we need to learn from this latest climate report and prepare for the shifts in seasons that will impact Vermont’s sense of place, ecosystems and every sector of the economy.
Deb Markowitz is the former Secretary of Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources and the former Vermont Secretary of State.