On February 9, 2023

Too late for business as usual

By Richard Hopkins

Editor’s note: Richard Hopkins is a retired public health official who has devoted himself to volunteer activities to try to reduce climate change. He is a member of the board of the Climate Economy Action Center of Addison County, and of the town of Middlebury Energy Committee.

Do you remember when Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” came out? I saw it in a crowded movie theater almost 20 years ago. Recently I wondered how our local climate data in Vermont look now compared to then. 

Quick answer: things have gotten worse. 

One good summary measure for climate is daily temperature, averaged over a whole year. The National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA) has a website where you can download such data (and some other summary measures) going back to 1895 for the western portion of Vermont.

You can see the data from 1895 through 2002. If you squint you can see a slight upward trend peeking through the year-to-year variability — such a trend would be a warming signal — but it could easily be dismissed as unimportant. There was a similar warm period during the early 1950s.

If you add in the years from 2002 to 2022, the years since the data shown in “An Inconvenient Truth,” you can see that the slope looks much steeper since 2002, and now it sure looks like a clear warning signal. You no longer need fancy statistics or computer models to see an effect.

For us in Vermont, the amount of warming so far, or likely, in the near future is not an emergency in itself — if our climate became like that of Pennsylvania, it would be no tragedy. But as this trend continues, farmers and the winter sports industry will need to adapt, and we should expect increases in the frequency, intensity and timing of extreme weather events (floods, heat waves, blizzards, droughts). 

We also should expect significant population pressure from climate refugees as flooding makes some coastal communities uninhabitable.

What we do locally to reduce the causes of climate change won’t by itself affect the level of CO2 in the atmosphere globally very much. It would be easy — and I believe wrong — to sit back and let other people far away make the needed changes, while we continue with business as usual. I think it is widely understood that for every part of the country, and every part of the world, business as usual is unacceptable.

The evidence in our 2017-2020 Addison County Greenhouse Gas Inventory is that so far, we do seem to be doing business as usual. (See more on that online at tinyurl.com/LocalGHG.) 

The good news is that, in accordance with our state’s Renewable Energy Standard for electric utilities, the electricity delivered by Green Mountain Power to its customers has gone from a low carbon content to a very low carbon content, perhaps close to zero. (Because our electricity is so low in carbon, reducing electricity consumption won’t in itself have much effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.)

The bad news is that we have seen little overall decrease in use of fossil fuels: gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, natural gas, propane. The changes we have seen are mostly attributable to the Covid restrictions of 2020 and 2021; less travel, more home heating as more people worked at home. There has been some progress — sales of heat pumps and electric vehicles are up, people are weatherizing their homes and businesses and adding solar panels to their roofs — but those changes have not yet been widespread enough to affect the countywide totals.

Agriculture, especially dairy farming, is a major industry in Addison and Rutland counties, and has been a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions totals. Farmers tend to be conservative, in the best sense — they will adopt a new practice when it is economically feasible and there is good evidence and experience that it works. Leaders in agriculture need to continue to step up to hasten change.

Getting out of a business-as-usual mindset is a necessity and a challenge for all of us. You can take action in your own life, and as a member of your community. 

In your own life, depending on your circumstances, you can replace the vehicles you drive and the powered equipment you use at home or in your business with electric equivalents when they need replacing, or even before. Similarly, you can heat your home, business or other buildings you are responsible for with cold-climate electric heat pumps, to replace your fossil-fuel heating system. 

As a member of your community, you can insist that your elected and appointed officials (town Select Board, school board, planning commission members, and so on) figure out how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions substantially when they make decisions about vehicles or building heat. You can join or form a climate committee in your town, your school, your workplace, or your place of worship. You can join an organization that advocates for climate-smart policy at the state or local level. 

There is much to be done, and we are running out of time. 

It’s too late for business-as-usual. 

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