By Polly Lynn
On Wednesday, Aug. 26, Rutland Mayor Chris Louras and the Vermont Council on Rural Development hosted a two-hour public forum at the Paramount Theatre downtown asking the question “What’s next for Vermont’s Climate Change Economy?” It was the first of three statewide forums that will contribute to the Vermont Climate Change Economy Council’s platform of action, which VCCEC will report to the Vermont Legislature, governor, and the public in January 2016. VCCEC was charged with a one year mission: to develop a structured plan with practical actions that will reduce carbon emissions and stimulate green economic development in Vermont.
Mayor Louras was joined by a panel of Rutland area business leaders who spoke to an audience of about 60 on some of the innovative strategies they have implemented that have helped them to boost economic opportunity while confronting climate change.
In his opening remarks, Louras outlined two realities that he said must be understood. First is that the climate IS changing. “More intense storms are happening more often, that’s the reality,” he said, citing the fact that Rutland has experienced five FEMA-level storms since 2011, with two hail storms that caused severe damage to the city and private property.
The second reality is that “economic development needs to be developed in the 21st century model,” Louras said. “We should not be looking to some huge company to come in to save the day.”
Two examples could easily be seen in the sustainable local foods movement and the sustainable solar companies, which have both seen success and growth in Rutland in recent years, he said.
The mayor also said that there were two competing philosophies out there when it comes to climate change solutions: one is mitigation (reducing one’s carbon footprint); the other is adaptation (becoming more resilient).
“What’s needed and what’s sexy and what’s happening in Rutland is that we’re breaking down barriers between mitigation and adaptation and making progress with new innovations,” Louras said.
Panel speakers at the Wednesday forum included Betsy Ide from Green Mountain Power, Mark Foley from Foley Services and Joe Fusco from Casella Waste Systems. Each spoke about past, present and future challenges they’ve experienced as a result of climate change and the innovative solutions they have (or hope to) develop to solve them. Often, the solutions they have implemented have also been able to save them money and/or better prepare them for the future of their industries.
Ide was the first to speak. She explained how electric poles and wires act like “sticks and string during a storm” and create a huge cost to the company to replace. With more intense storms happening more frequently, the costs have risen in recent years and that trend is expected to continue. “If we could envision a world without poles and wires, we’d cut down on cost,” she said. For maximum efficiency, GMP hopes one day to “choreograph electrons to be used where they are generated,” she said. Such an innovation would help to solve the problems of the future, making both their company and our community more resilient.
Foley spoke about how the marketplace cost pressures and consumer demand helped Foley Services make innovative changes that have both economic and environmental benefits.
“Ultimately, the marketplace will decide which innovations are successful,” he said, adding, “Vermont has always been ahead of the curve.”
Fusco, the final panelist to speak Wednesday evening, spoke of the scarcity of resources. He remembered the moment Casella Waste Systems came to the realization that their business model wouldn’t exist in the future. “When we looked the world squarely in the eye, what we saw was a world with limited resources,” he said. “We realized that people will not be able to consume indefinitely,” Fusco said, citing population statistics that indicate developing countries have masses “clawing into the middle class,” which will exacerbate consumption and lead to greater scarcity.
“If you’re still questioning climate change or thinking about it in isolation, you’re thinking too small,” he continued. The better questions to ask are: “What will the world expect of us? What will it reward us for? Pay us for?”
These questions have lead Casella to pursue a model of renewable resources.
“One question we’re now trying to solve is what to do with organic waste… it has value so it shouldn’t just go in the landfill but we need infrastructure to use and process it to get that value,” Fusco said. “Such solutions are environmentally imperative but will also be economically viable,” he added.
Leading into the public comment period, Fusco posed the following question to the audience: “Somebody is going to invent the technology of the future… why not in Vermont? What kind of environment do we need to create to make that possible?”
Twenty-two area residents, business owners, local and state representatives spoke up Wednesday night sharing potential solutions and diverse ideas about the future of Vermont’s climate change economy.
Suggestions included: to create a clear and predictable path for permitting to help develop new industry/infrastructure; to address transportation in Vermont as it has the greatest overall impact on green house gases (the Western Corridor passenger/freight trains and electric cars were cited); to better promote the assets of our region to outsiders to attract new innovative industries, young professionals and more tourists; and to create more housing density downtown to give young and old folks options that don’t require a car.
Many cited Rutland’s solar companies as successful job creators, attracting younger professionals.
In addition to the pro-growth future most people at the forum envisioned, one resident, Beth Thompson, voiced concern about rushing to develop too fast, saying that community conversations are important and that care ought to be taken through the process. “There are wrong ways to do the right thing,” she said.
After about 45 minutes of community feedback, Mayor Louras concluded the event with a call to action: “Let’s use Rutland as a laboratory to show the state how to do ‘it’, then the state can show the world. Whatever ‘it’ is.”
For more information visit vtrural.org/programs/climate-economy.