McKibben: Expect more storms

MONTPELIER (AP) — With Vermont still working to recover from Tropical Storm Irene’s torrential rains and flooding, environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben went before a panel of state lawmakers on Tuesday to say the storm was at least partly the product of climate change and a likely harbinger of a troubled future.

McKibben, a Ripton resident and scholar in residence at Middlebury College, said Irene was one of many signs that the climate is deteriorating more rapidly than predicted when he wrote “The End of Nature,” the first major book on climate change, in 1989.

“We didn’t know how fast or how hard this would pinch,” McKibben said of what was predicted for climate change 23 years ago. “The story of the past 20 years and even the last three or four years is that it is pinching much harder and faster than even the most dire predictions” would have indicated.

McKibben told the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee that Irene fit “precisely with what the climatologists have been telling us to expect. It was not an unbelievable windstorm as it swept up the East Coast. But over the waters of New York and New Jersey it encountered record sea surface temperatures ... This allowed it to soak up enormous amounts of moisture, most of which it dropped on Vermont.”

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, said he had invited McKibben to speak to the panel in part as a pep talk. Vermont’s environmental movement has frayed recently with disagreements over support for large wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy projects, he said.

“The most poorly sited renewable project is better than a new fossil fuel (burning) plant,” Klein said. His message for committee members, he said in an interview later, was “Don’t let folks derail you from what the real issue is” — climate change.

Irene, which hit Aug. 28, was a rainstorm of historic proportions in the state. Nearly eight inches fell in some areas. Flooding was widespread, resulting in six deaths in the state. More than 500 miles of roadway and more than 200 bridges were damaged or destroyed. Thousands were evacuated from their homes.

McKibben said that Vermont has gone from about 80 percent open land — mostly farms — and 20 percent forest in the 19th century to the reverse today. Since forest floors are good absorbers of water, the state should have been more resistant to flooding now than earlier in its history. That’s why Irene’s fury should be so striking, McKibben said.

“If you do set a new record it should come by a millimeter,” he said. “We were setting in places one-day rainfall records 25 and 30 percent higher than we’d ever recorded before.”

And Vermont is far from alone, McKibben said. A planet 1 degree warmer than 40 years ago means water evaporates more readily in arid areas and then is deposited in wetter areas at levels greater than historical norms.

He pointed to droughts last year in Texas and Oklahoma and floods in Pakistan and Central America as examples of climate disruption. A drought in Russia in 2010 meant the world’s third-largest grain exporter was unable to export any corn or wheat that year, McKibben said, triggering price spikes in those commodities of up to 60 percent.

“We think we’ve added a couple hundred million people to the rolls of the malnourished and severely hungry around the world as a result,” he said.

McKibben, who has gained notice lately as leader of the protests against the now-stalled Keystone XL pipeline project to bring Canadian tar sands oil to the Texas coast, said near-term progress on protecting the climate is not likely given the current political climate in Washington. He also said it is difficult for states acting alone to have much of an impact, because atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases don’t recognize political boundaries.

But he praised the committee for its work on a bill that, if passed, would require the state’s power companies to get more of their electricity from renewable sources, and said states might be able to lead by example.

Watching recent congressional debates over the Keystone pipeline was “not an edifying spectacle,” McKibben said. “It’s a reminder of how lucky we are to have a Legislature working on a human scale to solve real problems here in Vermont.”

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