By Kirk Carapezza
Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben addressed members of the Legislature from the podium of the House on Wednesday, urging them to pass legislation during this biennium that might combat climate change in Vermont – and elsewhere.
McKibben used his speech to admonish lawmakers that climate change and global warming – and how they adapt to it – will emerge as the number one issue on which they will be judged in the future. He urged them to support an expansion of weatherization programs, block tar sands oil from being shipped on a pipeline that crosses northern Vermont, and oppose a three-year moratorium on wind energy projects on ridgelines.
“We’ve already increased the temperature a degree, and another degree is in the offing,” McKibben warned. “There’s no going back on that. That’s where we live now. Our iconic Vermont of long winters and glorious falls will be badly, badly stressed.”
It wasn’t all doom-and-gloom from the Middlebury scholar in residence, though. McKibben took a moment at the end of his remarks to say he’s confident that the Vermont Legislature is up to the challenge.
It was standing room only in the House chamber as student activists clamored to catch a glimpse of McKibben, who’s become a sort of environmental rock star. His fervent – at times aggressive – speech was well-received.
Afterward, in Speaker Shap Smith’s office, McKibben signed a copy of his book for a fan from Barre. He admitted that the kind of policy changes that he’s suggesting – emission standards, a tax on carbon, the electrification of Vermont’s transportation system – won’t be painless. But he said the economic pain will be much greater if legislators don’t adopt them.
“In the end this isn’t a debate between Democrats and Republicans, business and environmentalists. It’s a debate between physics and human beings,” McKibben said. “That’s a very difficult debate to have because physics is a notoriously poor negotiator, you know? It doesn’t actually compromise. So if anyone is going to compromise in the face of what’s going on, it’s going to have to be us.”
Last week, Smith announced that he had invited McKibben to address lawmakers about the economic consequences of climate change. On Wednesday, he acknowledged that the environmentalist’s comments may seem too provocative for some people’s tastes.
“My role as speaker is to figure out a way to ensure that there’s a robust debate,” Smith said, adding that those who disagree with McKibben – namely opponents to wind projects on Vermont’s ridgelines – will have plenty of opportunities throughout the legislative session to make their opinions known.
Smith pointed to flood mitigation legislation introduced in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene as one example of how the legislature is already dealing with climate change.
“We’re going to have to change the way that we’re building our roads and bridges to reflect the changing nature of our landscape,” Smith said. “All those things are profound and we need to be thinking about them as we’re moving forward.”
Smith stressed that McKibben’s address was not mandatory for lawmakers, although student activists standing on their toes in the balcony of the House said they thought it should have been.
Earlier in the day, a joint meeting of the House Natural Resources and Energy, Commerce and Agriculture committees took testimony from business leaders and farmers on how climate change has affected their operations and their bottom lines.
Ski executives said shorter winter seasons have diminished their profits. And farmers testified that the volatile temperatures have made it increasingly difficult to plan ahead of their growing seasons.
In the early days of this biennium, House Commerce Committee Chairman Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, said the Legislature should develop a deeper understanding of both the climate and business challenges facing Vermont.
“I don’t think the purpose here is to slow global warming,” Botzow said. “I think the purpose is to position our businesses to be successful and sustainable in the world.”