SOUTH BURLINGTON — Business leaders and elected officials gathered outside Ben & Jerry’s corporate offices to call for a policy-driven charge to combat climate change, a task they say is vital to preserving the character of Vermont.
At Wednesday’s news conference, business leaders said climate change is altering the landscape of the state and striking at the heart of Vermont’s brand and quality of life.
Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, D-Chittenden, says the state should set a national example to adapt to what she is calling Vermont’s No. 1 economic peril.
Climate change has and will affect health care costs due to increased occurrences in new diseases such as asthma and Lyme disease, the maple, agricultural and ski industry due to erratic weather patterns, and road damages due to flooding that threatens tourism, Lyons said.
“We will no longer be Vermont,” she said. “Without action, we face a slow, lingering death to our way of life in Vermont.”
Vermont must be the first state to lead a national offense on climate change, setting an example for the rest of the country, said George Twigg, director of public affairs for the Vermont Energy Investment Corp.
Twigg said Vermont has made gains on reducing energy costs, referring to Efficiency Vermont, a nonprofit organization operated by VEIC that is designed to help reduce the energy costs.
The heating and transportation sectors are the two largest contributors to the state’s carbon footprint, he said.
“If Vermont can be a leader in those sectors, the way that we have been in the electricity sector, that can show the way for the rest of the nation,” Twigg said.
The state has some policies in place that were designed to combat climate change, Lyons said. This includes diversifying energy sources by using thermal, wind and solar, divesting from carbon fuels, a net metering policy that compels utilities to credit customers for the renewable power they produce themselves, biomass management, and forestry guidelines, for example.
In 2012, the Legislature passed Act 113, which called for the establishment of a “Genuine Progress Indicator” (GPI). The GPI looks at 25 factors, ranging from personal consumption to air pollution.
The Legislature also established the Clean Energy Development Fund in 2005, Act 74, which is designed to increase the development of environmentally friendly energy.
In May 2011, Gov. Peter Shumlin established a Climate Cabinet. One recent task of this cabinet was to help the Department of Public Service develop a Comprehensive Energy Plan. The plan’s overview states that Vermont’s energy consumption should be 90 percent renewable by 2050.
While the state is making gains on addressing energy consumption, some business leaders from Vermont’s iconic industries, agriculture and maple syrup, said climate change is already forcing them to adapt.
Sen. David Zuckerman, D/P-Chittenden, owner of Full Moon Farm in Hinesburg, said the recent increase in extreme weather patterns, including drought, flooding and damaging winds, have introduced new pests to kill crops.
For example, spotted wing drosophila, drosophila suzukii, affects small-fruit and tree-fruit crops; swede midge, contarinia nasturtii, is a new pest that affects cold crop families, such as broccoli, Zuckerman said.
In some instances, the only way to adapt is to stop growing, he said. His farm does not grow heirloom tomatoes anymore because late blight threatens their harvest.
“These impacts are real,” he said. “That’s why as policy makers and business leaders, we’re all standing together to say we need to start implementing policies and as individuals we need to start changing our habits so that we can slow this change down and eventually, hopefully, back it off.”
Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, said the industry is faced with shorter, erratic winter seasons, affecting the hundreds of Vermont families who depend on the product for their livelihoods.
The sugaring season is now three to four days, or 10 percent, shorter on average, Gordon said. In 2012, the warm spell in March cut expected maple sugar production in half.
“We can’t plant a different type of maple tree for next year. We have to rely on the trees we have had for generations,” he said. “Vermont maple syrup, that’s something that can’t be grown anywhere else.”
But new technology in the industry is adapting to the reality of changing weather patters. For example, many sugar producers use tubing to collect sap instead of buckets so they can collect sap throughout the season’s irregular weather conditions.
In 2011, Vermont broke two heat records, 28 rainfall records and 10 snowfall records while experiencing extreme flooding and hurricanes that cost the state millions of dollars, a news release stated.