Opinion
April 22, 2015

Time to take climate change debate to next level, consider costs beyond financial

By Rob Roper

It is safe to say that all or at least most of us believe that Vermont is a very special place, and we all want to do what’s necessary to preserve and pass on this unique treasure that both draws and keeps us here–majestic mountains, pristine waters, and wild, open spaces. The question is, what is the best policy for doing so?

On April 14, the State Senate passed a resolution declaring:

“The Senate of the State of Vermont recognizes that climate change is real, that human activities make a substantive contribution to climate change, and that it is imperative Vermont take steps now to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in order to promote energy independence and meet the State’s statutory goals for reduced greenhouse gas emissions…”

These statutory goals mean putting Vermont on a path toward getting 90 percent of our energy, including that for home heating and transportation, from renewable, preferably local sources by 2050. This sounds all well and good until one considers the cost, and we’re not talking about money. The policy of generating so much electricity from wind and solar plants will require developing thousands of acres of Vermont’s pristine landscape for industrial energy production. This will have profoundly negative effects on both the aesthetics and the ecology of the Green Mountain State.

It’s time to bring the climate change debate beyond whether or not the phenomenon exists (the useless quibbling between “denyers” and “alarmists”), and to start seriously discussing in concrete, realistic terms the costs and benefits of specific proposed policies. In other words, if we embark on transitioning to a largely renewable, locally produced energy portfolio, what will the net impact be on our ecosystem both in the short and long term?

Let’s assume for the moment that the most dire climate change predictions are true: human activity is a big factor, and temperatures could rise as much as 4 degrees by the end of the century.

So, if we develop all of Vermont’s usable ridge lines with industrial wind turbines, and develop thousands of acres of pasture land with industrial solar plants, will that have any impact on global climate trends either directly or indirectly? Will this effort and expense be relevant in preserving our own ski or maple sugaring industries, for example, over the next eight decades? Will it prevent the next Irene from happening? The honest answer to all these questions is: No.

So, why are we doing this?

Some will argue that while Vermont’s efforts are by themselves futile, we should serve as an example to others. Okay. But then we have to ask how much of an influence would Vermont’s example have to have, to impact global climate trends? If a couple of New England states followed us, would that make a difference? What about the East Coast? Or the Entire United States? The honest answer is, even if the Entire World did its best to follow Vermont, the impact by 2100 would be negligible to the point of unnoticeable. And, realistically, what are the odds that China and India or even Texas are going to take a cue from Vermont any time soon?

We do know, however, that developing the kind of land-intensive energy sources our current policy path calls for will negatively impact our ridge line ecosystems through the construction of industrial wind turbines. Birds and bats will be killed, including endangered species. Thousands of acres of solar panels will disrupt animal habitats, ironically making it harder for some species to adapt to climate change. And, of course, we will be sacrificing to a great extent the singular beauty of Vermont.

Is this really what we want to do?

A New Yorker article (April 6, 2015) by environmental conservationist Jonathan Franzen titled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” makes several interesting points on this topic, but this one sums it up neatly:

“We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.”

Is it worth wiping out wildlife species, habitats, and landscapes today if the end result is an earth that is 3.9 degrees warmer a hundred years from now, instead of 4?

We can use our resources to make genuine progress in preserving our mountaintops, cleaning our lakes and waterways, maintaining open spaces, and saving our wildlife, or we can sacrifice all this to no real effect whatsoever. Plan A makes more sense.

Robert Roper, President, Ethan Allen Institute, Montpelier, Vt.

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