Markowitz: Resilience in the wake of a changing climate

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Deb Markowitz, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.

“This is not the time for illusion or evasion; it is a time for transformation.”

 — David Orr, 2011

The devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy last month serves as a sad reminder that climate change is real; and it is having a very real and detrimental impact on our communities, our families and our livelihoods. The economic and human costs of Sandy are staggering. We cannot wait for the next Sandy or Irene, or the next historic blizzard, heat wave, drought or wildfire. We must address the causes of climate change and prepare for its inevitable impacts. We need to plan, and we need to act.

Vermont has an opportunity to lead this effort. Living in small communities, close to the land, we know first-hand that everything is interconnected; vibrant communities, healthy people, well-balanced ecosystems and a strong economy go hand-in-hand. We see that when ecological systems become unbalanced there is a corresponding detrimental impact on our lives and our pocketbooks. We need look no further than our backyard for evidence that this is so: in places where pollution from stormwater runoff has made the waters in Lake Champlain unswimmable, businesses that rely on visitors to the lake are suffering. Where air quality is poor, increasing numbers of children are experiencing asthma attacks that cause unnecessary suffering and economic hardship as parents miss work and pay thousands of dollars in medical expenses. Where wetlands have been compromised or destroyed, flood damage becomes more severe, impacting lives and seriously impairing already strained budgets.

So let’s begin to envision what Vermont would look like as a collection of resilient communities. … Let’s think creatively about the investments we could make today that will help us survive, and even thrive, in the face of unexpected challenges.

After witnessing the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, author Andrew Zolli wrote in a New York Times commentary that we must learn to be resilient – “to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events.” At the same time, we need to take steps now to ensure that our ecosystems can bounce back and adapt to the changes we are experiencing. When we protect our environment we invest in our future resilience.

So let’s begin to envision what Vermont would look like as a collection of resilient communities. In each of our cities, towns and villages we can begin to identify our strengths and vulnerabilities. Let’s think creatively about the investments we could make today that will help us survive, and even thrive, in the face of unexpected challenges. Let’s rethink how we build (or rebuild) our transportation infrastructure; how we get and deliver our energy; where and how we grow our communities and preserve or restore ecosystems; and how we create greater economic opportunities for our neighbors.

These are all issues we are looking at as a part of the work we are doing in Gov. Shumlin’s Climate Cabinet. However, one thing we know is that, while government has to be part of the solution, a lot of the changes we need to see require all Vermonters to get involved. And many of them have:

• Our shared environmental ethic means that Vermonters are clamoring for information about how they can help ensure our ecosystems remain resilient into the future

• Communities are rebuilding our battered infrastructure with climate change in mind

• Our planners are considering ways to reconnect rivers with their flood plains so that our communities might be protected from future floods

• We are investing in a smart grid and building new renewable energy projects

• Volunteers across the state are helping with early alerts for new invasive pests and our public health officials are working together to anticipate and educate the public about recognizing diseases that may be new to the area.

• The “buy local” and the local food movements, and investments in our Working Landscape initiative are helping local farmers, foresters and artisans. This makes our communities more economically resilient by keeping dollars local, while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

• Our children lead the nation in getting outdoors to learn and play, ensuring that the next generation will understand the importance of the natural environment to our well-being

The difficulties we face in the wake of Irene and now Sandy serve as stark reminders that the work we are doing to create resilient communities is vitally important. These are changing and challenging times; but one thing we have learned as Vermonters is that by working together we can make a difference for ourselves and for future generations.

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  • George Plumb

    “….grow our communities and preserve or restore ecosystems;…” is contradictory at least if she is talking about physical growth. Physical growth is why we have all the environmental problems that we have from the pollution of Lake Champlain to global heating. We have a culture of growth that makes some people richer but many people poorer. It is time to change our culture and recognize that we can’t grow forever. As the authors of the great new book, “Greening Vermont: The Search for a Sustainable State,” commendably say in the introduction “Vermont is not now a sustainable state…”

    Adding more physical growth will make us even less unsustainable. Yes, let’s grow in economic, social, and environmental justice but be very careful and limited about how much and what types of physical growth we have.

  • Robert Fireovid

    Mr. Plumb is absolutely right. Vermont should focus on humanity’s future – cultural and spiritual growth.

    Physical growth has served humanity well, but it’s not sustainable and it’s killing other species, ourselves and the planet.

    It’s time to change our mindset from growing our consumption of natural resources to creating a sustainable economy. Vermont will show the rest of the country and the world how to do it.

  • Connie Godin

    Gee, hadn’t heard any of that before.

  • Thank you Secretary Markowitz for sharing your ideas and vision.

    Personally, I have some difficulty with the notion that climate change caused Sandy, or Irene, or any recent storms that have caused massive damage to man-made infrastructure. I like the old Yankee saying, “don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.” Clearly, humans have changed the environment in countless ways, but the belief that we can somehow adjust the Earth’s thermostat to our liking by changing our actions seems naive. Instead of asking “how can we stop climate change?” what if the question instead were “how can we prepare for normal and extreme weather events?” I think Deb is getting at that point, even if Sandy and Irene have become poster children for certain projects and agendas.

    As George notes, there is often a contradiction in our goals and actions regarding the environment. We’ve seen time and time again electricity transmission, generation and metering infrastructure projects being rushed through the regulatory process without all the facts on or stakeholders at the table. It’s easy for an electric utility to say, “these new high voltage lines will increase reliability and protect consumers from future outages.” What’s impossible to quantify (ahead of time) is how many trees need to be cut for that right-of-way and how that deforestation, subsequent spraying of herbicides, and resulting electromagnetic field will change the resiliency of the habitat and communities they pass through, over or under. The regulatory process essentially ignores these side-effects and focuses on the human or commercial gains. This is the single-most pressing issue facing Vermont right now: how to help Vermont’s businesses, government and regulators from falling for all those darn progress traps.

    Maybe it’s because Vermont is a ski state that we’ve become overly complacent about the ways in which mountains and steep slopes are developed. It’s great if Vermont can “reconnect rivers with their flood plains” but a more effective solution would be to focus on the higher elevation tributaries that create those flood waters in the first place. The constant here is gravity, so if we do get an Irene event every few years, catching that water in our hills will be more effective than dealing with it a raging, muddy mess of trees, boulders and houses plowing through a floodplain. Ski areas are no doubt a backbone of Vermont’s economy, but if you look at what Irene did at the base of some of them, the industry may need to reconsider its need for having so many acres completely cleared. I know I’m not the only one who would love to see a few trails returned to woods.

    I’d rather not harp about why many believe that investing in a “smart grid” and “renewable energy projects” is a waste of money and actually causing more harm than good.

    Ask yourself, do we want to be a defiant culture, or a precautionary one?

    Are we going to put all our eggs in the technology basket, or spread them out?

    If Vermonters increasingly become sick from exposure to smart meters and wind turbines, will we be able to accept that these technologies are creating the opposite of resiliency?

    Is the solution more of the same ( or less “business as usual” (

    Time will tell whether all those millions in subsidies and stimulus were wisely spent, or if they should have been saved for a rainy day.

  • George Plumb

    It would be thoughtful and considerate if people who write op eds also responded to posts in a timely fashion. Or does Secretary Markowitz think that because of her position she does not have to respond to the concerns of every day citizens?

    Her editorial was generally right on and I commend her for writing it. However, are the points being raised valid or not? What does she think? Does she really think that we can grow physically forever and if not by what criteria would she determine that “Enough is Enough” which by the way is the title of a forthcoming book by Robert Dietz from the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy,

    • Robert Pine

      Some people have mistaken the ability to comment online on op-eds with an obligation on the part of the commentator to respond back. There is no such obligation, moral or material, even for a public servant writing such a piece – let alone a pundit of journalist – to respond. They said their piece, and now we say ours; that’s the way it goes. If they choose to engage, that’s fine. If they choose not to, that’s fine, too. Many of the people authoring these pieces don’t even look at our comments, though admittedly some do, and respond. That said, expecting Sec. Markowitz – or anyone else – to reply to some of the reader opinions out here, (regardless of their relevance or quality), and further implying that not responding is in some way inconsiderate and uncaring, is at best naive, and at worst inane.

  • Cynthia Browning

    I would like to point out that Gov. Shumlin’s administration is proposing to put a large new state office building on 54,000 cubic yards of fill in the Winooski flood plain in Waterbury. I think that they claim that since they will excavate the same amount out of the floodway, the net result will be No Adverse Impact to flood storage or flood mitigation.

    Two problems with this. First, the project essentially leaves the flood storage capacity of the area the same as in Irene, during which such damage occurred in Waterbury. I would have wanted to INCREASE flood storage capacity. Secondly, it is quite possible that the river will fill in the excavated areas with sediment during smaller floods, so that when there is a big flood there could even be LESS flood storage capacity than during Irene, with more potential flood damage resulting.

    If this Governor truly believes that climate change is occurring and that large rain storms will be more frequent, why is his administration proposing to put a large building on fill in the flood plain, without actually increasing the space given to the river? Even if the new building is flood proofed this could contribute to damage elsewhere.

    It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Secretary Markowitz or her staff have to say about this project.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

  • rosemarie jackowski

    The Smart Grid will be a big part of the problem in future disasters. Electric power production should be smaller, more efficient, and more local. This would minimize the line loss during transmission.

    Also, we need to have the wires buried. Snow, ice, trees and wires on poles – the perfect formula for disaster. Unemployment could be cut if this was a WPA type public project.

  • George Plumb

    I disagree with Robert Pines post. When I write an op ed I feel a responsibility to respond to posts and to defend my positions. I think people in high positions, government or othrwise, also have that responsibility.

    Granted that maybe they can’t respond to all the media comments but I would hope that they would at least repond to vtdigger, the only sate wide media source.

    Why is it asking too much for a high ranking state employee to defend their position if the posts are relevant and reasonably justified? They took the time to write it, or approve a staff’s writing of it, we took the time to read it and give it some thought. Why can’t they resond so that we know further what their thinking is?

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