Adjusting to climate change will be costly for the state of Vermont, but scientists say the cost of inaction will be greater and even dangerous.
Researchers from the University of Vermont released a report Tuesday detailing the impacts of climate change on Vermont. The report aims to translate the scientific certainty of climate change into a grim forecast that is expected to worsen over the next century.
The researchers say Vermont must stop heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere by advancing renewable energy development and using less energy. The state must also prepare for existing climate-related threats by redesigning its vulnerable infrastructure and economy.
• Vermont’s temperatures are projected to rise up to 3.6° F by 2050 and 5.4° F of by 2100. The chances of record-breaking high temperature extremes will continue to increase.
• Precipitation will continue to increase over the next century, especially in mountainous regions. First, it will come as snow, but winter precipitation will then shift to rainfall.
• Pest infestations will continue to disrupt the state’s agrarian economy. New viral diseases carried by ticks and mosquitoes will threaten public health.
• Energy demand will increase 0.7 percent annually through 2030. To make matters worse, major storm events will continue to damage energy infrastructure such as poles and wires.
The report carries a sobering long-term forecast for the state, but the next few decades may actually be good for the state’s tourism and agrarian economy. The report projects more snowfall for skiing, longer fall foliage seasons and longer growing seasons suited for growing warm-weather crops such as grapes and peaches.
However, the report finds that climate change will quickly turn costly and dangerous — heavy downpours, ice storms and flooding will grow stronger and continue to damage the state’s infrastructure.
But this is nothing new. In the past four years, the state has filed nine requests for disaster declarations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the vast majority of which were related to flooding. Heavy rains, downpours and flooding also carry nutrients that are polluting the state’s waters. And last winter’s ice storm left thousands without power.
Policy solution: cut greenhouse gas emissions
The report says one way to clear up these gloomy predictions is to reduce heat-trapping carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere. This means using less energy – through efficiency and behavioral changes – and moving off fossil fuels and onto renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
“Beyond the next few decades, the amount of climate change will still largely be determined by choices society makes about emissions,” the report says. “While Vermont does not have a remotely significant effect on global greenhouse emissions, it is in a position to demonstrate the effectiveness of various systemic changes in reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions.”
Echoing a national chorus led by Obama administration, Gov. Peter Shumlin is taking an “all-of-the-above” approach to climate change. That means building out the state’s renewable energy infrastructure as fast as possible – including industrial-scale wind and solar – and accepting natural gas as a bridge off of fossil fuels, he said.
“If this planet is going to be livable for our kids and grand-kids, we can’t move fast enough to harness all-of-the-above,” Shumlin said at an unrelated news conference Tuesday.
Vermont this year was ranked first in the nation for the number of solar energy jobs per capita. And Vermont, though it is the second-smallest state in the U.S., leads the country with the lowest carbon emissions from electricity generation.
Vermont officials hope to meet 90 percent of the state’s energy demand with renewables by 2050. Right now, only 16 percent of the state’s energy consumption comes from renewable sources. To meet the target, more electricity must be generated in Vermont, state officials say.
“There is a sea change going on,” Shumlin said. “We’ve moved from big generation out there that we never see and we never hear to power that’s going to be generated in our backyards or in our homes.”
The largest, and perhaps most controversial, example of the state taking responsibility for its power demands is Green Mountain Power’s 21-turbine Lowell Mountain wind farm in the Northeast Kingdom.
The project cleared 135 acres of mountaintop forests (through GMP paid to conserve 2,800 acres elsewhere) and was the stage for dozens of protesters who attempted to block construction.
“Any way you generate electricity, there is going to be impacts,” GMP spokesperson Dotty Schnure said during a tour of the wind farm Wednesday.
Nonetheless, state regulators approved the $165 million project, and it now generates enough power to electrify 24,000 homes, GMP says.
“In balance, [the Public Service Board’s] decision was that this project would be in the public good,” Schnure said.
The company is also leading a charge to make Rutland the “solar capital” of the region. The rapid development of ground-mounted solar panels atop the area’s agrarian landscape led lawmakers to consider legislation this year to give towns the ability to stop these projects.
Behavioral solution: use less
In addition to the state’s progress on expanding renewable energy, residents must change their behavior to use less energy, the reports says. That means driving less, monitoring their energy consumption, purchasing energy-efficiency appliances and making lifestyle changes.
“Understanding mechanisms that can increase energy efficiency and conservation behaviors are central to this challenge. Policy decisions that leverage an understanding of behavior change could profoundly support this mitigation effort,” the report states.
David Blittersdorf, president of AllEarth Renewables Inc., the state’s largest renewable energy developer, agrees that Vermont must build out “massive amounts of solar and wind” to replace fossil fuels.
But this is not enough, he said. People need to drive less and conserve. And one way to make sure this happens is to put a price on carbon emissions, he said.
“At the end of the day, we need to tax carbon at a very high level – at $100 a ton or more – to actually get people to change,” he said. “People don’t change without hitting their pocketbook.”
The Vermont Climate Assessment was written by scientists and graduate students at the University of Vermont. The researchers collaborated with state experts, meteorologists, state businesses, farmers and nonprofit organizations.