Climate activist Bill McKibben brought his campaign to address climate change to the Vermont House of Representatives Wednesday, saying that Vermont can lead the nation in adapting to and stopping climate change.
He praised the Legislature while outlining priorities for more change, including thermal efficiency improvements, divestment from fossil fuel investments, and construction of more renewable energy projects.
McKibben later went before a House panel to take questions and discuss ideas about what the state can do. The appearance of the well-known Ripton resident was the result of an unusual invitation to speak to the House chamber under the Golden Dome by House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morristown.
After listing a series of grim figures on the rate and severity of climate change, he told House members that if we don’t act now we are in for “a planet straight out of science fiction.” McKibben emphasized that there are no silver bullets. “Maybe, however, there is enough silver buckshot.”
McKibben chimed in on the issue of wind power, a topic that is before lawmakers this session. He said a three-year wind moratorium some legislators favor is the wrong thing for Vermont to do because we do not have three years to spare.
“I am glad there are people standing up for our mountains,” he said, but “by far the greatest threat to their integrity, biology, and beauty is climate change.”
He said he hoped one day to see wind towers on the mountain behind his house, though, “We do not need them on every ridge line.”
McKibben, who teaches at Middlebury College, praised lawmakers for having “some of the country’s most devoted environmental legislators.” He also praised state government in general for leading the nation on climate change adaptation and prevention, and he singled out the ban on the oil-extraction method of “fracking.”
McKibben cited a number of effects of climate change already felt in the state, mentioning later ice-outs and lilac bloom dates and severe rainstorms. (See related story: At Statehouse, companies, business owners detail impacts of changing climate)
“Even if we do everything right we’re going to go right up to the two-degree red line” after which scientists say the earth as we know it will be dramatically changed, he said. McKibben argued that we must stop climate change and that “stopping it means getting off gas and coal as soon as possible.”
According to McKibben, a priority for the Legislature should be first to focus on thermal efficiency.
“If we get really tight houses then our options will improve,” he said.
Vermont should also ban importation of tar sands oil through any Vermont pipeline and divest from the fossil fuel industry. “Why pay tens of millions of dollars to recover from Irene and pay companies that contribute to it?” he asked.
Other solutions are to increase public transportation, reduce sprawl, and promote local food. He told the General Assembly that he did not think nuclear power was going to be a major part of the solution because of its large capital costs.
McKibben received standing ovations both at the beginning and end of his talk.
Reaction to his unusual address under the Golden Dome displayed some of the divergent views on what actions the state should take. The House Republican Caucus issued a press release after McKibben’s speech, saying, “a decision by the State of Vermont to allow Vermont Yankee to remain open is quick, simple and inexpensive. The caucus encourages Gov. Peter Shumlin and Attorney General William Sorrell to show true climate change leadership and allow a low-carbon electricity generator to remain open.”
Shumlin has been a long-standing opponent of Vermont Yankee and has campaigned for its closure.
Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, noted in an email that while the GOP caucus shares McKibben’s concerns, the state “must act within practical constraints of affordability to taxpayers and ratepayers. Pursuing every recommendation suggested by Mr. McKibben would be a challenge to the state’s economy due to high, front-end expenditures in energy, transportation, and other infrastructure.”
Turner said the costs would “harm quality of life for all Vermonters” and create a stiff financial burden.
The Vermont Energy Partnership, of which Entergy, the owner of Vermont Yankee, is a member, also issued a press release, saying Vermont Yankee is an “ideal option” for helping power the growing number of electric vehicles, in conjunction with wind and solar energy.
For his part, McKibben minced no words in his talk, painting the climate change as a threat to the state Vermonters know today. “This is an emergency,” McKibben said in his speech. The world today is “not as sweet as the world we were born into. Our iconic Vermont of long winters and glorious falls will be badly, badly stressed. But it’s no use crying about it.”
He ended by saying, “I have confidence that if any political body is up to the challenge, it is this one.”
McKibben testifies to House panel
After his speech to the House, McKibben testified before the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.
Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, chair of the committee, opened that meeting by asking, “Our real interest as I see it is we are going to be here in the future. We are a determined people. But our actions … are going to be fundamentally different. … How can Vermont be best positioned in the commerce world to make our living off an inevitability?”
McKibben responded that Vermont should continue to attract innovators, lead the transition to renewable energy, and continue to lead the local food movement. “We have lots and lots of natural advantage to play with.”
Rep. Sam Young, D-Glover, whose district is between two major wind projects in the state, asked McKibben how he viewed the balance between renewable energy and the environmental costs of, for example, mining rare earth metals to build wind towers. McKibben said that unfortunately, we have to do environmental triage. “We’re in a world that’s about to go over the cliff.”
“My guess is that [opposition to wind power] will fade fairly fast.” In fact, McKibben guessed that wind towers in Vermont will one day become a tourist attraction. “That’s what’s happened in a lot of other places.”
Rep. Bob Bouchard, R-Colchester, asked whether McKibben supported nuclear power as a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
McKibben said he’s not opposed to nuclear power, but he thinks Vermont Yankee is “badly run” and that adding more nuclear power plants would be too expensive for Vermont to easily take on.
McKibben said hydro power is also an option, though federal and state regulations can inhibit the building of dams.
“We are using energy in such quantities that we have to do everything we can to catch up with the curve of physics here.” He said we’ll need luck on our side, even if we do everything right. As for changes, he said we have to “figure out how to do them quickly, but as a community.”
Botzow asked what young entrepreneurs are doing that gives McKibben hope. McKibben responded that they have an “almost intuitive, innate sense of connectedness among people that comes from growing up in an Internet age.”
This sense of connectedness makes it easier to get things done that reach beyond one city or state, in his view. In fact, McKibben believes Vermont’s small size is a strength in the Internet age because it’s more nimble and has a stronger sense of community than larger states. “I think it’s the most exciting state in the union.”