Stephen Groff: Climate change challenges for Vermont

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Stephen Groff, who grew up in Warren and has spent the last 30 years working on sustainable development issues around the world. He is an economist and vice president of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila, Philippines. The views expressed in this commentary are his and do not necessarily reflect ADB policy.

As we shovel out from under a major March nor’easter, it’s hard to remember that week back in February when temperatures soared into the 70s (and the record books …) across the state. This happens just one year after the unusually warm winter of 2015-16, when my son and I actually went for a swim in Lake Champlain on Christmas Eve. Beyond these anecdotes, it is clear that our climate is changing and that this should be a cause for concern.

It seems though that the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is rather less worried. In an interview with CNBC as the administration proposes major cuts to his agency, Pruitt indicated that he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide emissions are “a primary contributor to the global warming that we see,” further suggesting “… we need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.” While perhaps not an unexpected statement from the current administration, it is yet another troubling indication of ideology trumping evidence.

Let’s take Vermont, a state where the tourism and recreation industries are important components of its GDP. Historical weather data from the National Weather Service shows some interesting trends. If you look at snowfall and temperature data for Burlington between 1902 and 2016, annual snowfall has increased by around 20 inches and average annual temperature has increased by nearly 2°F over the last century. The 2014 Vermont Climate Assessment (VCA) Report concludes that over the next 25 years “snowfall in mountainous areas may increase with increasing winter precipitation, bringing a positive impact on winter-related recreation and tourism.”

I concede that increased winter precipitation could be a positive development for the ski and tourism sectors. And yet over the same 1902–2016 period, there is about 25 percent more variability in annual of snowfall – or the difference in accumulation we see every year compared against the historical average. We also see increases in the variability of average temperature over the same period. From this we can conclude that climate change isn’t necessarily defined simply by warmer weather everywhere. But it does mean more variable, unpredictable and possibly volatile weather.

While the tourism industry may be encouraged by the potential for increased accumulation, ski resorts in the state are equally dependent on the predictability of snowfall. Record snowfall in one year means a lot less if there are exposed rocks on the slopes a year before or after. The VCA Report indicates that the state’s “freezing period has shortened by 4 days each 10 years.” This suggests that even measured optimism on increased accumulation must be tempered. Looking a little further out, the VCA report notes: “within 30-40 years, most winter precipitation will fall as rain and result in shorter-lasting snowpack and snowfall.” The optimist will say that shorter winters mean longer summers and increased summer tourism but such shifts will undoubtedly have an impact on employment. A 2013 Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing study notes that “individuals working in tourism and recreation cannot easily transition to other sectors,” and University of Vermont professor Art Woolf suggests that one in 10 jobs are currently dependent on out-of-state visitors. Taken together we can conclude that any climate-related shifts in the tourism industry will have to be carefully managed to minimize adverse impacts on employment and revenue.

So, let’s say we agree that the climate is changing. Who says that we’re responsible or that there is anything we can do about it? Only the thousands of scientists and other experts who contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and their 2013 report which concluded:

“It is extremely likely [95 percent confidence] more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.”

Global greenhouse gas emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels and cement production between 1902 and 2011 have increased nearly 1,600 percent – clearly a trend that correlates with the increasing snowfall and temperature – and variability of both – mentioned above. IPCC research and science just don’t allow this to be dismissed as simply a cycle of planetary warming.

Vermont’s experience with the 2011 Tropical Storm Irene is indicative of the impact such extreme weather events can have on both communities and the state budget with the cost for recovery estimated at between $700 million and $1 billion.

 

A separate 2012 IPCC report concluded that: “a changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of weather and climate extremes, and can result in unprecedented extremes.” Vermont’s experience with the 2011 Tropical Storm Irene is indicative of the impact such extreme weather events can have on both communities and the state budget with the cost for recovery estimated at between $700 million and $1 billion. If that weren’t enough, Mathias Collins in his 2009 study noted increasing flood frequency and magnitude in New England and that the timing of this increase is “broadly synchronous” with changes to the upper atmospheric circulation patterns “known to affect climate variability.” Referring to the same study, the American Society of Civil Engineers note in their 2014 report card on Vermont infrastructure that floods “have had a devastating effect on Vermont’s infrastructure and are likely to be larger threats moving forward.” All of this suggests that the state may be particularly vulnerable to the negative consequences of climate change.

My primary message here is that this challenge is not “a hundred years down the road” as suggested by John McClaughry in his March 13 commentary in VTDigger. These are changes that are happening right now; changes that can have significant medium-term planning and budgetary consequences for the state. A group of prominent Republican policy makers – led by former Treasury Secretaries Jim Baker and Hank Paulson – reached a similar conclusion for the country as a whole in their recent report “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends.” In this study, they state:

“Mounting evidence of climate change is growing too strong to ignore. While the extent to which climate change is due to man-made causes can be questioned, the risks associated with future warming are too big and should be hedged.”

What is the solution? With a global challenge like climate change it is extremely difficult to ascertain responsibility and assign accountability. Even so, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change “Paris Agreement” is a valiant attempt at a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature increases well below 2°C. President Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, a move that would most certainly have negative consequences for the country and for Vermont.

But remaining party to the Paris Agreement is only part of the solution. The weight of evidence shows that climate change is happening and will escalate, regardless of one’s ideological leanings or questions on its anthropogenic origins. What is needed for Vermont is a balanced mix of strategy, policy and regulation, “hedging” if you will. Central to this is ensuring that the state’s infrastructure is “climate proof” and that it can withstand the ravages of new weather patterns. Likewise, efforts to increase energy efficiency and promote the use of renewable energy must continue. Equally important is developing plans for providing the state’s future workforce with the support necessary to anticipate and adapt to jobs that will likely be different from those on the market today. Finally, in a state already known for high taxes, I know that “tax” is not a popular word but sensible tax policy – including the possibility of a carbon tax – will have to be part of any plan. This said, any climate-related taxes should be considered only as part of an overall rationalization of tax policy, not just tacked on as another tax Vermonters have to pay.

I know this all seems like a lot to absorb, particularly when it is difficult to accurately predict future impacts. Nevertheless, with a significant share of the state’s economy and budget vulnerable to changing weather patterns, we can’t afford to ignore it either. Maybe a first step is agreeing to reconsider which month comes “in like a lion and out like a lamb”…?

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  • Tom Hughes

    An excellent piece. Despite the Trump Administration’s abdication of leadership on climate (and other) issues, Vermont can still do its part — and in doing so create jobs and strengthen our economy.

  • Ritva Burton

    Vermont’s carbon emissions are so tiny, tiny, tiny on a global scale BUT a carbon tax on Vermonters who are already over-taxed would be very, very visible!

  • Don Dalton

    CO2 doesn’t act like a real greenhouse; a real greenhouse prevents convective heat transfer. CO2 increases infrared back radiation and theoretically this would heat the atmosphere, but CO2 doesn’t limit convective heat transfer. There are equations to handle the mechanism of how CO2 feedbacks would operate and these equations are plugged into the climate models. Our predictions of climate catastrophe are based 100% on climate models. Since there is no tropical tropospheric hot spot as predicted by models, (http://tinyurl.com/mevfce3) then it’s likely that there’s some mechanism for convective heat transfer that the models haven’t accounted for (as has been proposed by scientists like Richard Lindzen.)

    The projected warming from a doubling of CO2 is about 4 W/m2– this is infrared heat energy. If we look at the top-of-atmosphere emissions of radiation in the window of 10.5-12.5µm, the atmospheric infrared window, then we see fluctuations in infrared emissions ranging from +3.0 W/m2 to -3.0 W/m2, a range of 6.0 W/m2. [Note that linked diagram is likely missing a decimal point.] http://tinyurl.com/mgnkosa. Since the theory of CO2 warming requires a tropospheric hot spot and there is none, then we might rightfully assume that we’re missing mechanisms of convective heat transport, as demonstrated in the atmospheric infrared window, that explain the evidence.

    Why are we warming? Probably for the same reasons as for the Minoan warm
    period, the Roman warm period, and the Medieval warm period.
    http://tinyurl.com/csvwpha

    • David Bell

      Every link you provided is to a chart from an anti-science blog. Actual science, not to be confused with denialist talking points has verified AGW for quite some time:

      https://climate.nasa.gov/

      https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2015/may/15/new-study-finds-a-hot-spot-in-the-atmosphere

      “Our predictions of climate catastrophe are based 100% on climate models.”

      Our predictions of literally everything is based 100% on models. If tomorrow morning, Jupiter simply reversed direction, it would mean our astrophysics models were wrong.

      • Don Dalton

        If you believe that Sherwood has found the hot spot despite that he hasn’t released his data or methods so his work can be independently verified and despite that his work contradicts thirty-plus years of satellite and balloon data, then everything is fine and catastrophic warming is ahead, as predicted. If you believe that satellite and balloon data are reliable then we’re in big trouble because the CO2 feedback theory has been proved false and there are likely means of convective heat transfer that compensate for the minor warming (1 degree C, at 600ppm CO2) caused by CO2 itself. http://www-eaps.mit.edu/faculty/lindzen/230_TakingGr.pdf

        When we have such large fluxes in radiation balance occurring naturally all the time, what makes us think that an extra 2W/m2 from CO2 is going to have much effect on our energy budget? http://geog.ucsb.edu/ideas/animations/SurfaceNetLongwaveRadiationFlux.swf It will have an effect, yes, but since tropospheric temperature modeling is way off from measured temperature, it looks like the feedbacks to CO2 aren’t at the catastrophic end of the scale– not even close.

        • David Bell

          The paper I cited does in fact use satellite data, as well as publicly available data on temperature. See below for additional information.

          https://phys.org/news/2015-05-climate-scientists-elusive-tropospheric-hot.html

          So, it does not contradict satellite data. Also, try looking at ground temperature measurements and sea measurements.

          On that note, your claims regarding satellite and balloon data are incorrect.

          http://www.livescience.com/378-key-argument-global-warming-critics-evaporates.html

          “the CO2 feedback theory has been proved false”

          Do you mean the theory of positive CO2 feedback?

          If so, even Richard Lindzen doesn’t believe that, he has repeatedly stated that increasing CO2 does lead to increased warming, he just refuse to accept the level of warming will be extremely high.

          “it looks like the feedbacks to CO2 aren’t at the catastrophic end of the scale”

          Ok, are you claiming there is no feedback or that it is lower than generally believed?

          • Don Dalton

            Using public data on temperature and revealing your “homogenization” of the data are two different things. Your link to satellite and balloon data is from 2005; discrepancies have been corrected and data from two satellites and four balloon datasets now accord well with each other, but not with model predictions.

            The physics of CO2 radiation are correct. The feedbacks to CO2 LIWR radiation are assumed to be positive; the evidence tells us they are roughly neutral to slightly negative (NOT catastrophic) most likely due to moist convective heat transport not expressed in models. Please read again the comments from APS members concerning the APS statement; these are a good summary of the true state of the science.

          • David Bell

            So, are we now in agreement Sherwood’s work does not contradict the data that was used to create it, including satellite data?

            “The feedbacks to CO2 LIWR radiation are assumed to be positive; the
            evidence tells us they are roughly neutral to slightly negative”

            Positive CO2 feedback has been corroborated many times over, see below for one example:

            https://phys.org/news/2015-03-evidence-positive-feedback-climate.html

            Please see the actual statement of the APS, not to be confused with the statement from Judith Curry designed to mislead people regarding the state of the science.

            And again, your claims regarding models are provably false.

            https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2015/jul/31/climate-models-are-even-more-accurate-than-you-thought

    • Don Dalton

      Correction: 4 W/m2 of infrared energy is the total for 600 ppm CO2 (“catastrophe”.) Of this, approximately 2 W/m2 is additional energy from 1985 levels of CO2 (350 ppm.) This 2 W/m2 is well within the range of observed fluctuations (about 6 W/m2) in the the atmospheric infrared window, ie, the infrared emissions to space at the top of atmosphere. Also, 2 W/m2 pales in comparison to daily fluctuations in solar energy hitting the surface of the earth. https://judithcurry.com/2015/04/20/aps-members-comment-on-climate-change-statement/ (scroll down to last comment by physicist John Clauser.)

    • JohnGreenberg

      Once again, you ignore thousands of years of data from other
      sources, probably millions of observations from multiple sources on land and sea, and a whole lot of predictions that HAVE proven correct over time to focus on one observation.

      When a fact or set of facts appears to disagree with a
      well-formed existing theoretical model, theorists abandon the model only when they have one which accounts for all of the facts explained by the existing model AND this new one. Otherwise, they’d be abandoning a whole body of reliable knowledge because of one puzzle piece which so far doesn’t SEEM to fit.

      Instead, they do exactly what they did here. First, check
      the discordant data to make sure that it’s not the source of the problem. Then, look for confounding factors.

      When you have a theory which explains MORE than the AGW
      hypothesis, I’m sure you’ll tell us.

  • Don Dalton

    The IPCC isn’t necessarily a body of scientific experts and in some cases authors
    don’t even have PhDs. In the peer review process for the IPCC objections are often ignored. The IPCC is a reflection of the science of “alarmist” warming, and many argue that it’s not really an objective assessment of climate science.
    http://www.thegwpf.org/images/stories/gwpf-reports/mckitrick-ipcc_reforms.pdf

    • David Bell

      Ok, then let’s take a look at the views of every scientific organization of national or international standing worldwide; oh, wait, they all agree with the IPCC.

      https://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus/

      So, are you now going to claim that no scientific organization of national or international standing is “an objective assessment of climate science”?

      • Don Dalton

        APS: not total agreement: https://judithcurry.com/2015/04/20/aps-members-comment-on-climate-change-statement/

        Seems that some members strongly disagree with APS “consensus” statement. I would urge readers to look at the many comments posted by physicists who disagree with the consensus view, and who use arguments based on evidence to support their points.

        • David Bell

          You link is to a blog post, not the APS website.

          According to the APS web site, they are in fact in total agreement:

          https://www.aps.org/policy/statements/15_3.cfm

          Please note the difference.

          My prior statement is still correct.

          • Don Dalton

            If you had bothered to read the blog posts– written by APS members and special posted by request of APS members who disagreed with the APS statement– then you’d have learned that the APS was not polled on agreement with the statement.

            So no, members of the APS are not in total agreement, as the posts make crystal clear.

          • JohnGreenberg

            Don Dalton:

            First, you’ve misinterpreted what David Bell wrote. He said: “every scientific ORGANIZATION;” he
            did not say every member of every scientific organization. When the US signs a treaty or passes a law, does that mean that every US citizen agrees with it? Of course not.

            No one has ever suggested that consensus in the scientific community means that every single scientist agrees: 97% is NOT equal to 100%.

            Scientific consensus NEVER means that scientists agree on every aspect or every data point of ANY scientific model. If it did, there would be nothing to
            research.

            You suggest discarding models whenever any one observation APPEARS to be discordant. If we did that, there would be no scientific knowledge.

            I think you would benefit greatly from reading Thomas Kuhn’s book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which explains in some detail how scientists actually work, how models are formed, and why and when they are discarded.

          • David Bell

            Your blog post lists a handful of people who do not agree with the APS statement, this is hardly a significant number, nor does the blog post indicate a majority disagree.

            If your argument is that an institution cannot issue a statement unless 100% of members agree, you are effectively saying they can rarely (if ever) issue a statement.

            By this logic, Harvard would not even be able to issue a statement that inflation numbers released by MIT, the FED and Google are accurate.

    • JohnGreenberg

      Here’s what IPCC says: “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the leading international body for the
      assessment of climate change. It was established by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and
      the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)
      in 1988 to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the
      current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential
      environmental and socio-economic impacts. In the same year, the UN
      General Assembly endorsed the action by WMO and UNEP in jointly establishing the IPCC.

      The IPCC reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and
      socio-economic information produced worldwide relevant to the
      understanding of climate change. It does not
      conduct any research nor does it monitor climate related data or
      parameters.

      As an intergovernmental body, membership of the IPCC is open to all
      member countries of the United Nations (UN) and WMO. Currently 195 countries
      are Members of the IPCC. Governments participate in the review process
      and the plenary Sessions, where main decisions about the IPCC work
      programme are taken and reports are accepted, adopted
      and approved. The IPCC Bureau Members, including the Chair, are also
      elected during the plenary Sessions.

      Thousands of scientists from all over the world contribute to the work
      of the IPCC. Review is an essential part of the IPCC process, to ensure
      an objective and complete assessment of current information.
      IPCC aims to reflect a range of views and expertise…. Because of its scientific and intergovernmental nature, the IPCC
      embodies a unique opportunity to provide rigorous and balanced
      scientific information to
      decision makers. By endorsing the IPCC reports, governments acknowledge
      the authority of their scientific content. The work of the organization
      is therefore policy-relevant and yet policy-neutral, never
      policy-prescriptive” http://www.ipcc.ch/organization/organization.shtml

  • Jim Sawhill

    There was a time several decades ago when nature and conservation meant something. It has been hijacked by radical environmental extremists, crony renewable energy subsidy miners, and progressive politicos, including the UN, who have found great wealth and aspire to control. Trump is turning off the spigot to the feeding troughs. Much screaming ahead.

    Ignore the Summary for Policymakers propaganda and read the IPCC science – climate is an admixture of chaotic systems and therefore completely unpredictable and it is not possible to distinguish human contributions amidst natural ones – lost in the noise.

    For any willing to learn, read the NAS scholarship on their also hijacking “sustainability” and discover that Middlebury again sinks to the bottom of the liberty and free speech barrel –

    https://www.nas.org/projects/sustainability_report

    • JohnGreenberg

      The NAS that Jim Sawhill is referring to is the National Association of Scholars, NOT the National Academy of Sciences, which along with ” the Royal Society, the national science academy of the U.K., released a joint publication
      today in Washington, D.C., that explains the clear evidence that humans
      are causing the climate to change, and that addresses a variety of
      other key questions commonly asked about climate change science.” http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=18730

      • Don Dalton

        Point 5 of the NAS report you refer to is a flat-out lie. Satellite data and balloon data do not confirm the theory of how CO2 would warm the troposphere– not even close. The tropical tropospheric observations have essentially proved the theory wrong, as members of the APS have noticed. http://www.climatedialogue.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Christy-fig-2.jpg Predictions (model runs) on the right, balloon data circles on the left.

    • Matthew Davis

      “Trump is turning off the spigot to the feeding troughs. Much screaming ahead.”
      Actually he is just turning up the spigot to the military industrial complex’s trough…

      • Jason Brisson

        Yep, same spigot, just going to a different trough now!

        • Matt Young

          Thankfully that same military “spigot” was turned on years ago….right before world warII.

          • Jason Brisson

            …and once we got that military industrial complex and its $$ injected into our veins, we became addicts–Ike warned us. Who threatens the world now with WWIII that we need to defund domestic programs to go on a crash military buildup?

          • Matt Young

            We have too many domestic programs now, particularly when able bodied people recieve compensation for doing nothing.

          • Jason Brisson

            Who threatens the world now with WWIII that we need to defund domestic programs to go on a crash military buildup?

  • Matt Young

    No question about it, Vermont is the cause of global warming. Let’s put a host of new regulations and taxes in place and solve the problem once and for all.

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