What to expect from climate change
In the four-year period between 2007 and 2011, there were 11 FEMA disaster declarations in Vermont. Most of them were related to intense precipitation. In 2011 alone, every county in Vermont was included in at least one federal disaster declaration. That also was the year Tropical Storm Irene ravaged our state. Yet there is concern among some public policymakers that Vermonters are losing interest in taking measures to prevent future climate calamities.
Along comes the Vermont Climate Assessment, the first of its kind in the nation, released June 10 by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. It’s a document so sweeping we could spend years analyzing it and taking action.
What is a climate assessment? It’s a study of the changing climate, how we’ve already been affected, and what we can expect in the future. What’s the difference between climate and weather? According to the study, “Climate is what you expect, weather is what you get.”
The Vermont Climate Assessment is a pioneering document. A Northeast regional climate report came out in 2008. And nationally, the U.S. has published three climate assessment reports over the past 15 years. But this is first time an individual state has done its own climate assessment.
In typical Vermont fashion, our report is a compilation of the best scientific information regarding the changing climate supplemented by citizen scientists. An apple producer’s detailed records on his growing seasons and results from the popular annual Joe’s Pond Ice-Out Contest in West Danville are both part of the assessment’s calculations.
Current climate trends the report documents in Vermont:
— Rising temperatures: Average annual temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1960.
— Increasing precipitation: Average annual precipitation has increased 5.9 inches since 1960, almost half (48 percent) of this change occurring since 1990.
— Extreme events, such as heavy downpours, have become more frequent and/or intense.
— Significant changes in the length of the frost-free growing season and warmth of nighttime temperatures across the state.
Although the assessment acknowledges that some climate change impacts will be positive, such as longer growing seasons, it foresees most effects as clearly negative, some with staggering economic and social costs. Remember, Irene cost us at least $850 million.
Some projected impacts are counter-intuitive. For instance, even with warmer temperatures, energy use is expected to rise 0.7 percent a year through 2030, with increased use of air conditioning in warmer summer months more than offsetting reduced heating expenses in winter.
The report primarily focuses on agricultural production, forests, water resources, and recreation industries and lays out a number of challenges for community development. What do we do with the many flood-prone transportation corridors we have running parallel to river corridors, our antiquated water infrastructure, and the vulnerable populations who live in our flood plains?
Even though the report’s authors say that the majority of their findings have a very high to high confidence level, there will always be an uncertainty factor in these kinds of projections. This is what makes Vermonters nervous about spending money to combat our increasingly erratic weather.
But given the documented trends, it probably makes sense to start adapting to our changing climate. In agriculture, we could encourage our farmers to diversify their crops to better accommodate weather extremes; use cover crops (green manure) to minimize soil disturbance; and be better water managers by using conservation buffer strips and riparian corridors to help stabilize soils.
Early investments such as these could provide economic benefits today, minimize farmers’ costs over time, and yield benefits even in the absence of climate change. In Europe these kinds of measures are called a “No Regrets” response.
However, many of these measures will likely require substantial investments. As a planner, I’m familiar with the challenges of long-range planning. Finding consensus on what should be done and then finding the financial resources to get it done can be formidable. Yet I realize that the Vermont Climate Assessment can be an invaluable tool in planning for warmer, wetter and more erratic climatic patterns.
We need to talk. It’s going to take us awhile to figure out what will work best for Vermont, so let’s get that conversation going.
Barbara Noyes Pulling is a planner with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission and works with local communities on flood resilience, land use, disaster mitigation, and environmental issues.