Commentary: Time to Take Climate Change Debate to Next Level (April, 2015)

by Rob RoperRob Roper

It is safe to say that all or at least most of us believe that Vermont is a very special place, and we all want to do what’s necessary to preserve and pass on this unique treasure that both draws and keeps us here – majestic mountains, pristine waters, and wild, open spaces. The question is, what is the best policy for doing so.

On April 15, the State Senate passed a resolution declaring:

That the Senate of the State of Vermont recognizes that climate change is real, that human activities make a substantive contribution to climate change, and that it is imperative Vermont take steps now to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels in order to promote energy independence and meet the State’s statutory goals for reduced greenhouse gas emissions….

These statutory goals mean putting Vermont on a path toward getting 90 percent of our energy, including that for home heating and transportation, from renewable, preferably local sources by 2050. This sounds all well and good until one considers the cost, and we’re not talking about money. The policy of generating so much electricity from wind and solar plants will require developing thousands of acres of Vermont’s pristine landscape for industrial energy production. This will have profoundly negative effects on both the aesthetics and the ecology of the Green Mountain State.

It’s time to bring the climate change debate beyond whether or not the phenomenon exists (the useless quibbling between “deniers” and “alarmists”), and to start seriously discussing in concrete, realistic terms the costs and benefits of specific proposed policies. In other words, if we embark on transitioning to a largely renewable, locally produced energy portfolio, what will the net impact be on our ecosystem both in the short and long term.

Let’s assume for the moment that the most dire climate change predictions are true: human activity is a big factor, and temperatures could rise as much as 4 degrees by the end of the century.

So, if we develop all of Vermont’s usable ridge lines with industrial wind turbines, and develop thousands of acres of pasture land with industrial solar plants, will that have any impact on global climate trends either directly or indirectly? Will this effort and expense be relevant in preserving our own ski or maple sugaring industries, for example, over the next eight decades? Will it prevent the next Irene from happening? The honest answer to all these questions is no.

So, why are we doing this?

Some will argue that while Vermont’s efforts are by themselves futile, we should serve as an example to others. Okay. But, then we have to ask how much of an influence would Vermont’s example have to have to impact global climate trends? If a couple of New England states follow us, would that make a difference? What about the East Coast? Or the Entire United States? The honest answer is, even if the entire world did its best to follow Vermont, the impact by 2100 would be negligible to the point of unnoticeable. And, realistically, what are the odds China and India or even Texas are going to take a cue from Vermont any time soon?

We do know, however, that developing the kind of land intensive energy sources our current policy path calls for will negatively impact our ridge line ecosystems through the construction of industrial wind turbines. Birds and bats will be killed, including endangered species. Thousands of acres of solar panels will disrupt animal habitats, ironically, making it harder for some species to adapt to climate change. And, of course, we will be sacrificing to a great extent the singular beauty of Vermont.

Is this really what we want to do?

A recent article in the New Yorker by environmental conservationist Jonathan Franzen, Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation, makes several interesting points on this topic, but this one sums it up neatly:

We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.

Is it worth wiping out wildlife species, habitats, and landscapes today if the end result is an earth is three point nine degrees warmer a hundred years from now instead of four?

We can use our resources to make genuine progress in preserving our mountain tops, cleaning our lakes and waterways, maintaining open spaces, and saving our wildlife, or we can sacrifice all this to no real effect whatsoever. Plan A makes more sense.

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Fortner April 17, 2015 at 4:42 pm

Putting aside whether the legislature somehow can magically decide that “climate change” ™ is caused by humans (a finding that can charitably be described as debated), until and unless those trying to limit use of fossil fuels start advocating the use of nuclear power, they have zero real-world credibility.

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John McClaughry April 19, 2015 at 9:07 pm

I don’t agree with the Franzen quotation that we can back off fighting “climate change” “at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.” The IPCC has estimated 3 degrees K increase from another century of business as usual. This estimate (midway between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees K) is based on a 1979 calculation of supposed climate sensitivity, that now looks extremely shaky – far too high . If it turns out that present trends result in a one degree K increase by 2100, that’s about what the Earth enjoyed from 1850 to 2000, as the Little Ice Age subsided. Was that a good thing for humans? Are you kidding? Of course it was, and another one degree K over a hundred years is likely to more of a blessing than a catastrophe.

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Paul Kenyon May 1, 2015 at 11:29 pm

I’d like the Senate to give us their definition of “Climate Change.” The actual climate has been changing since there first was a climate. I wonder what is in the details of the Senate’s definition.

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