Jim Stiles: Old guard’s climate strategy must give way to adaptation

This commentary is by Jim Stiles of St. Albans, a member of the Vermont Healthy Soil Coalition. 

Climate action’s old guard is getting it wrong. It is no longer reasonable to believe that we are going to avoid serious impacts from climate change. Therefore it is no longer enough to simply cut greenhouse gas emissions.

It is fine to hope for the best, but responsible people plan for reasonable worst cases. Hope isn’t a plan.

Responsible people create plans for addressing problems they face. Vermont’s climate plan fails to do this. Badly. The current Climate Action Plan is designed to address just one challenge — to do our part to protect all the people of the world and its ecosystems from climate change. It focuses heavily on global issues, with little attention paid to the welfare of Vermont and Vermonters specifically. 

I agree wholeheartedly with cutting greenhouse gases, but in light of the world’s failure to do its part, it is Vermont’s responsibility to also look after our own welfare.

Three decades ago, the old guard delivered a climate strategy to cut global greenhouse gas emissions. It made good sense. It was the right thing to do at the time. 

Two decades ago, cutting greenhouse gases had grown into a mature set of priorities that had the potential to effectively manage climate change. Ten years ago, the global failure to cut greenhouse gases was becoming clear, dousing any reasonable hope of effectively moderating global climate change.

The last 10 years have been bad ones for the climate. Instead of decreasing, greenhouse gas emissions have continued to climb. Any “successes” along the way — where global carbon emissions declined — proved transitory, side effects of economic downturns, and rebounded when economic growth returned. 

The old guard’s efforts probably have knocked the edge off of what could have been unthinkable disaster. This is a significant achievement. However, Vermont has yet to deliver anything resembling genuine climate action success. We have made modest progress, but less worse is not the same thing as good.

Fortunately, an important victory lies largely unrecognized among the greenhouse gas-cutting failures: Some of those initiatives helped people who adopted them to live better. For example, after weatherization, living spaces became more comfortable and energy bills dropped. It also appears that weatherized buildings can be more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Incidental successes like these can be found in many greenhouse gas-reduction strategies.

I was heartened by a recent VTDigger commentary where Georgi de Rahm offered her perspective on some of the problems with current electric vehicle strategies. Her criticisms were right on the mark. More importantly, the alternatives she offered were on the mark as well. 

She would have us move away from our car-centric society instead of doubling down on it with the help of electric cars. Cars do have a valuable role in a sustainable future, but Ms. de Rahm is absolutely correct — our “hop-in-the-car-and…” lifestyles have to change.

Creating neighborhoods and communities that bring services and amenities to people is a big step in adapting to a future that is coming fast. Substituting great neighborhoods to replace most cars will help preserve prosperity in those neighborhoods. Incidentally, it will also cut greenhouse gas emissions massively and provide other significant benefits as well.

Similar benefits can come from other options. Soil-healthy agriculture and continued innovation in electronic communication (the pandemic proved that the internet can be a potent alternative to cars) are good examples, helping to prepare us for changes in the climate while also providing large greenhouse gas cuts.

Climate adaptation does not mean abandoning greenhouse gas reduction. Although significant climate change now appears to be unavoidable, and calls for adaptation, we still must cut greenhouse gases. Failure would lead to ongoing erosion of our prosperity and degradation of the environment as violent and extreme conditions continued to worsen. 

There is no contradiction between the two priorities: Climate adaptation makes cutting greenhouse gases easier.

We can build on the incidental lessons about adapting to climate change learned as we struggled to cut greenhouse gases. There is more to learn about climate adaptation, but the path is clear. Fewer cars, healthier soil, more efficient buildings, and other adaptations create a path to a better future for Vermont and Vermonters. 

It is time to adjust the priorities of Vermont’s Climate Action Program to place more emphasis on climate adaptation.


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