Commentary - Climate Change Demands Action Now 8/3/2018

It is not an exaggeration to say that climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity today.  While there are many who still think that climate change is a hoax, we need only to look at melting polar ice caps, extreme storms with significantly heavier precipitation and flooding, rising global atmospheric temperatures, more frequent and intense heat waves not only in the U.S. but across the globe, and the devastating wildfires in the western U.S. that have increased in both frequency and scope.  This phenomenon will continue to create heavier and heavier economic and social impacts moving forward. We have to ask ourselves what we can do to combat this phenomenon; and to do that we have to consider the cause.

Indeed, there are many who will reluctantly acknowledge that climate change is happening, but attribute it to natural cycles rather than to human influence.  This uninformed view ignores the fact that today's atmospheric CO2 level of 400 parts per million is now 1.3 times higher than the average peak concentrations of about 300 ppm over the last 400,000 years as measured by ice cores. This data is known as the Keeling Curve and is recorded and maintained by the Scripps Oceanographic Institute of the University of California San Diego and can be seen online. This breakout from the historical trend has occurred during the last century as the human race extracted and burned unprecedented amounts of fossil fuels which contain the energy of the sun stored over millions of years.

So, the answer has to be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Renewable energy development since the turn of the century has provided an alternative to traditional sources of energy such as coal, oil and gas. The costs of solar and wind technology, still in their relative infancy, are already on par with oil and coal. In 2011 Vermont set a goal of becoming 90% renewable over all types of energy use by 2050 and to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 1990 levels by 2025. Two years ago 189 countries, including the U.S., adopted the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce GHG emissions. Unfortunately, President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement and instead has been encouraging more fossil fuel extraction. Vermont, along with hundreds of state and local governments, has resolved to continue working to achieve our own goals and those of the Paris agreement. So, how are we doing?

Sad to say, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources recently released the 2015 Greenhouse Gas Inventory and the numbers are disheartening. Instead of seeing a reduction of GHG emissions since 2011, the state has exceeded the 1990 baseline by 16%. The full report can be found at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation website.  While progress has been made in electrical energy generation, the largest GHG increases came in the transportation and heating fuel use components. The latter two components are where we need to concentrate our efforts going forward.  

Renewable electricity is now the cleanest source of energy in Vermont. Moreover, since no fossil fuel is sourced in Vermont, 80% of the cost of fossil fuels leaves the state.  It makes sense to transition as much of our energy used in transportation and heating to cleaner electric energy as we continue to develop in-state renewable electricity generation. This can be encouraged by factoring into the price of fossil fuels the social and economic costs of climate change. By putting a price on carbon pollution in a revenue-neutral way, Vermonters can actually benefit economically by driving and heating more cleanly. This is not a new idea and has been proposed by conservative leaders like George Schultz, Henry Paulson, and James Baker. In a June 20th op-ed in the New York Times (, former Senators Trent Lott (Republican) and John Breaux (Democrat) made the case for a climate change fee on carbon-based fuels. And Vermont would not be alone in adopting such a strategy.  In June, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill requiring the state to implement a carbon-pricing strategy by 2020. In Vermont legislators introduced a carbon-pricing proposal called the Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy EXchange (ESSEX) Plan that would channel revenues raised from the carbon fee to offset electricity costs.  To reduce the impact of the fees for low income and rural Vermonters, those consumers would get a greater share of the revenues.

It is well past the time to tackle this world-changing problem.  It is important to understand that we are not doing it alone and that we need to do our part.