Of Lions, Lambs and Climate - Climate Change Challenges for Vermont

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 seventies (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 (see blue data points and trend lines in Figures 1 and 2 below). 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% 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 (variability is represented by the green data points and trend lines in Figures 1 and 2). 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 ten 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 (Figure 3 below) have increased nearly 1,600% – 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.

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 effect 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”...?

Stephen Groff grew up in Vermont 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. This commentary first appeared in VTDigger.

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