Our Work

Extreme is Becoming Normal

Article published Feb 20, 2011 in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald

By Johanna Miller

In the past few weeks, successive snowstorms blanketed the United States from coast to coast, closing schools from Maine to Texas. “Thundersnow,” the rare winter thunderstorm where snow falls instead of rain, was experienced in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and across nearly all of Vermont.

As Vermont climate expert and author Bill McKibben noted recently, “Oh, there have been snowstorms before … our planet has always produced extreme events. But by definition extreme events are supposed to be rare, and all of a sudden they’re not.” McKibben highlights several examples: 19 nations set all-time temperature records in 2010 (itself a record), Pakistan’s mercury soared to 128 last June, and Russia caught on fire.

We are, in fact, witnessing the advancing stages of global climate change. We have — and we are — fundamentally altering life on planet Earth. Our biosphere may become inhospitable for humans or wildlife. And, so far, not much is being done about it.

Earlier this month, after another heavy snowstorm in Vermont, about 150 Vermonters gathered at the Statehouse to do something about it. Their goal was to bring the critical issue back to the fore.

Their day was filled with both disappointment and hope.

Attendees learned the fate of ambitious energy legislation, full of strategies to move Vermont away from reliance on fossil fuels to clean, renewable, in-state supplies. With disappointment, they heard that the outlook for bold provisions in the bill was bleak. But just hours later, the House passed a resolution reaffirming its commitment to climate action, the state’s energy and climate goals, and a strategic plan to help move the state toward climate action solutions.

In many ways, a perfect storm is brewing to help catalyze invention and clean energy innovation in Vermont, including:

  • The scheduled closure of Vermont Yankee, the state’s aged nuclear power plant that has been hampered by a series of troubling problems, in March 2012.
  • A weak economy that could use a boost from the kind of success many clean-technology businesses are witnessing.
  • A strong, solid and broad-based public will for action.

Given the state’s stark budget challenges and an economy where more people are looking for a secure paycheck to feed their families, there is no doubt that times are tough. But Vermonters are resourceful. And some good ideas are on the table under Montpelier’s Golden Dome:

  • H.155, a bill designed to remove the federal stumbling blocks to the promising “property assessed clean energy program.” It is a local government-supported initiative that allows property owners to finance energy-efficiency and renewable energy projects for their homes and businesses. Property owners who receive financing for improvements then repay it as an assessment on their property tax bills through the resulting energy savings they realize.
  • Legislation to remove the 2 percent cap on net metering projects, continue the state’s successful community-scale renewable energy program (the standard offer), fund the Clean Energy Development Fund and create a statewide solar rate, among other provisions. The bill, H.56, whittled down from a far more ambitious beginning, is focused largely on bringing small-scale distributed generation projects online.
  • A “time of sale” disclosure bill (H.57) that would require sellers of residential or commercial property to make available an up-to-date “statement of energy performance” of a building to would-be buyers.

These are essential pieces of public policy. But even these vital efforts still fall far short of positioning the state to meet its important climate change-combating goals, including reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions: 25 percent by 2012, 50 percent by 2028 and 75 percent by 2050.

Fortunately another effort is under way beyond the Statehouse to map out a strategy to meet Vermont’s energy needs and climate goals. The Department of Public Service, coordinating with state agencies like the Agencies of Natural Resources and Transportation, is ramping up to update and overhaul its comprehensive energy plan. This plan will set the essential, broad-based framework for how to meet the energy and climate challenges before us.

Such a plan is desperately needed and long overdue. A realistic state and national strategy, accompanied by essential action, is imperative to move toward a clean, 21st-century energy economy and meet the greatest challenge of our lives — climate change.

Let’s get behind the good ideas and action under way. And let’s hope that bold, decisive action can help make “thundersnow” the rare experience it’s supposed to be.

To check the status of bills and resolutions, see the Vermont legislative bill tracking system at www.leg.state.vt.us/database/status/status.cfm. Or contact Johanna Miller at jmiller@vnrc.org or 223-2328.

Johanna Miller is energy program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council.