ADDISON COUNTY — Vermont is getting warmer. And wetter. And without significant global reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, that trend will continue, according to a comprehensive report on climate change released by the White House this month.
The National Climate Assessment, the culmination of two years of research by hundreds of scientists across the country, posits that the effects of climate change — such as rising temperatures, increased precipitation, more frequent droughts and rising sea levels — are already being felt in the United States.
Without qualification, the report states that the climate change Earth is experiencing is caused by human activity.
“Observations unequivocally show that climate is changing and that the warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases,” the report states.
U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who spoke with the Independent during a visit to Middlebury College for a panel on climate change May 16, said the report included nothing new, and instead reinforced what researchers have believed for years.
“The report, of course, builds upon and adds to a literature that has reached a conclusion that we are already suffering impacts of global warming, and the longer we wait the harder and more expensive it will be to respond,” Moniz said.
Moniz lauded the report for focusing on the effects of climate change on individual regions of the nation. For example, the report predicts heavier precipitation in the Northeast, increased heat and wildfires in the Southwest, strained water sources in the Great Plains and thawing permafrost in Alaska.
“I think the report has been getting a fair amount of attention for its focus on the different kinds of regional impacts,” Moniz said. “I think that is a very critical part of the story, and one that increasingly captures the public’s attention.”
U.S. ENERGY SECRETARY Ernest Moniz, speaking here at the Sustainable Energy Summit at Middlebury College on May 16, noted that the National Climate Assessment shows that the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already affecting people in Vermont.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Bill McKibben, one of the nation’s leading environmentalists and a professor at Middlebury College, agreed with Moniz that there are no big surprises in the new White House report.
“It was one more rock on the pile; there has been a steady stream of giant reports dating back to 1995 and all have said about the same thing,” McKibben said. “This one just adds that climate change is no longer a future threat — since we haven’t done anything about it, it’s now a very real part of our life.”
McKibben said that more important news emerged after the National Climate Assessment was released. Another paper, this one by British researchers, reported that the rate of melting on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet had doubled since 2010, and is now irreversible. In turn, this melt contributes to rising sea levels.
“That melt has passed a point of no return,” McKibben said. “That was truly a kick in the gut, and should make us redouble our efforts to do much in the very short window we have.”
DIAGNOSIS FOR VERMONT
In the report, researchers argue that some of byproducts of a changing climate are beneficial in the long run, such as longer growing seasons, but many of the consequences are negative.
“Our society and its infrastructure were designed for the climate that we have had, not the rapidly changing climate we now have and can expect in the future,” the report states.
In its assessment of risk factors for the Northeast, the NCA predicted:
The Northeast will be plagued by heat waves, heavy downpours and sea level rise.
The changing climate will greatly affect the maple syrup, timber and seafood industries.
States with aging infrastructures, like Vermont, will be further damaged by more frequent and more damaging floods
Boreal forests will recede to higher elevations
The report also noted that states with populations centered along rivers and in flood plains are particularly vulnerable to increased precipitation.
“In mountainous regions, including much of West Virginia and large parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, more intense precipitation events will mean greater flood risk, particularly in valleys, where people, infrastructure, and agriculture tend to be concentrated,” the report states.
In the most troubling news for the Northeast, the NCA noted that the region had “experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the U.S.”
Between 1950 and 2010, the report notes, the Northeast saw more than a 70 percent increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events, which are defined as the heaviest 1 percent of all daily events.
Never was this more apparent than when Tropical Storm Irene wreaked havoc through much of southern and central Vermont in August 2011.
In a special section of the report dedicated to the storm, researchers noted that Irene destroyed 146 road segments, 200 bridges and 200 miles of rail in the state, costing Vermont $175 million to $200 million in infrastructure repairs.
“The volume of water was unprecedented, as was the power of the water in the rivers running through the state,” the report states.
EVIDENCE SUPPORTS REPORT
The NCA noted that between 1895 and 2011, temperatures increased in the Northeast by a total of 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate data collected over the last century and a half by the National Weather Service office in Burlington supports the claims made in the National Climate Assessment.
The past 25 years have been wetter and warmer than normal in Burlington. Five of the wettest 11 years on record have occurred since 1990, while seven of the 13 warmest years, measured by mean annual temperature, have also occurred during that period. 2012 marked the warmest year on record, with an average temperature of 49.9 degrees.
Of the 20 biggest snowfalls on record, 12 have occurred since 1993 (this year’s March whopper came in at number 12). Since 1998, Burlington has seen the wettest months on record for January, April, May, July and September.
While the NCA left no ambiguity as to the human culpability for climate change, the debate in Congress is far from over.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chastised the report as a “war on coal.” (Only Wyoming and West Virginia produce more coal than Kentucky.) Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also criticized the report, and said that he does not believe humans are responsible for changes to Earth’s climate.
Vermont’s Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders said he fears that efforts Congress is making to address climate change will halt if the Republican Party wins a majority of seats in the Senate this fall, as some forecasts have predicted.
Sanders said he was particularly troubled that should GOP take control of the chamber, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who charged that the NCA was politically motivated, would likely become chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Public Works.
“If (Republicans) win control of the Senate, the chairman of the major committee dealing with the environment will believe climate change is a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore and the Hollywood elite,” Sanders said.
At the energy summit May 16, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., expressed frustration with some of his colleagues.
“To the few Flat Earthers who say there is no such thing as climate change — enough already,” Leahy told the audience. “Acknowledge that we have a major problem.”
Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont’s Democratic Congressman, had his own quip for climate change deniers in his chamber, joking that he worked with the “greatest minds of the 18th century.”
Welch said he hoped the NCA would help convince Americans that climate change needs to be addressed, but didn’t hold out the same hope for his own colleagues in the House of Representatives.
“I work with a lot of folks in Congress who are climate change deniers,” Welch said. “I don’t think there’s anything that will change them.”
Kidding aside, efforts to pass energy efficiency legislation have stalled in both chambers. A bill co-sponsored by Welch and colleague David McKinley, R-W.Va., would increase efficiency standards in residential, commercial and industrial buildings.
“The Welch/McKinley bill is an important step, but even that’s getting blocked,” Welch said. “Congress is the obstacle here — as a body, it’s not taking climate change as a serious threat.”
McKibben said that the ongoing climate change debate in Congress is largely a result of lobbying on behalf of coal, oil and gas companies.
“It’s still subject to debate because the fossil fuel industry is the richest industry on the planet and it can buy political support,” McKibben said.
Welch agreed that the oil, gas and coal industries are influential in Washington.
“They have a lot of clout in Congress,” Welch said. “How else can you explain tax subsidies to oil companies and a trillion dollars in profits in 10 years?”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan think tank, the oil, natural gas and coal industries spent a total of $165 million lobbying Congress in 2013. The alternative energy lobby, which includes solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy sources, spent $22 million in 2013.
Well aware of the power of the fossil fuel lobby, President Obama has pledged to employ every tool available to the executive branch to address climate change, thus circumventing a gridlocked Congress. Using the regulatory authority of the Environmental Projection Agency, the White House has proposed more stringent emissions standards on coal-burning power plants. Moniz, as well as Vermont’s Congressional delegation, support this proposal.
“I want the White House to be as aggressive as it can be,” Sanders said. “The bottom line is the recent report indicated if we do not move more aggressively, there is a possibility that the temperature will go up 10 degrees, and that would be catastrophic.”
While Vermont’s political leaders were quick to celebrate the state’s efforts to promote renewable sources of energy, McKibben said that if Vermont truly is leading the nation on this issue, that ain’t saying much.
“If we are, it’s a pretty good sign that nobody else is doing much, because Vermont seems to have stopped building new wind turbines, and the Democratic head of the Senate Energy Committee has just revealed himself to be a climate denier,” McKibben said, referring to comments Sen. Bob Hartwell, D-Bennington, made to Seven Days earlier this year.
McKibben, a Ripton resident, said the administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin has done some things right, such as promoting small scale solar technology, but criticized the governor for refusing to divest the state’s interests in the fossil fuel industry.
“(The state) is helping fund the ongoing political obstruction that is endangering the planet,” McKibben said.
McKibben said he disagreed with Moniz’s characterization of natural gas as a bridge fuel at the May 16 climate change panel.
“The science doesn’t support this any more,” McKibben said.
McKibben said that while burning natural gas produces less carbon than burning coal, natural gas creates more methane, a more potent greenhouse gas.
“Pound for pound, the comparative impact of methane on climate change is over 20 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period,” the Environmental Protection Agency stated on its website.
According to the EPA, methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States, accounting for 9 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
Instead of investing in natural gas infrastructure, McKibben believes Vermont and the other states should focus on promoting renewable energy sources.
“The only chance we have is for a full-on leap into renewable energy, which is entirely renewable,” McKibben said. “Germany, which is at our latitude, produces 74 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. There’s no technological obstacle.”
McKibben also rejected the argument that building a natural gas pipeline through western Vermont, as Vermont Gas Systems has proposed to do, will help the state achieve its renewable energy goals.
“Natural gas is not a bridge — it’s a barrier to getting things done,” McKibben said. “If we build a gas pipeline down the west side of Vermont, do you think it will make it more likely or less likely that we aggressively pursue a massive buildout of renewables?”
McKibben also praised President Obama for supporting tighter emissions regulations for coal-burning power plants, but cautioned that these regulations will be rendered moot if the U.S. continues to export coal at record levels. In 2013, the United States exported more than 100 million short tons of coal, mostly to Europe and Asia.
“If we simply ship overseas what we’re not burning here, it won’t matter,” McKibben said.
China consumes 47 percent of the world’s coal, while the U.S. consumes 11 percent.
McKibben pointed to Tropical Storm Irene as evidence that New England is getting wetter, and said that Vermont’s staple industries — agriculture, maple sugaring and tourism — will all feel the effects of climate change.
“It’s hard to imagine what won’t be affected, since economists say the world’s GDP will take a hit from uncontrolled climate change comparable World War I and II and the Great Depression combined,” McKibben said.