Dan Jones is a managing partner in Net Zero Vermont and a former chair of the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee
Even with a few good days scattered in after two-and-a-half months of fairly constant rain, we can all share in a dispiriting view of what our climate-changed future might be like.
Who would have thought that future might make us a temperate rainforest? If you think I am being alarmist, go take a ride out past the local cornfields. Where the young plants are not drowned, they look like the sprouts of early June, not the growing stalks of mid-July. But, as the mold grows in our basements and our bean seeds rot in the ground, it is becoming evident that there will be challenges to our future which can’t be addressed by our present half-baked governmental and economic policies.
Let’s face it, none of us wants to embrace the lifestyle changes and loss of convenience that will come from really addressing the climate crisis. We depend on our gas-burning cars for work and play, and we vacation in polluting airplanes while buying processed food trucked in from across the country. It’s considered un-American to talk about giving up all that magic. Instead, Vermont pushes off the date of making change by pretending that we can actually cut our greenhouse gases by 2050. I am sorry to be the one to tell you that that goal is over 30 years too late.
The constant rain, here in Vermont, and the record heat in the Southwest are merely the preludes to the dislocations that are now upon us.
Floods will now often be the norm in the Northeast, droughts, heat and fires in other regions. Meteorologist Alan Betts reminded me that we had a noticeable shift in the precipitation levels in ‘96 and suggested that “the jet stream patterns have changed and are now giving us more weeks of the same weather and this leads to extremes in both rains and drought. When the ground is wet from weeks of rain, the extra evaporation gives more thunderstorms. This, in turn, gives more rain so this can help lock in wet spells. We could now be setting ourselves up for another wet summer like 2011. The flooding from Irene was so bad because the ground was wet and could not soak up the first couple of inches of rain. Let us hope we do not get a tropical storm this year.”
On top of that, new bugs and predators will make much of the tropical South uninhabitable and New England woods more scary. Sadly, the coming climate will be unpredictable so we won’t be able to build up systems to respond. And to make matters worse, the carbon dislocations we are putting in the atmosphere today won’t be fully felt for another 30 years.
The fearful and deluded claim is that we can’t tell from weather events what the climate will be. Meteorologists, like Betts, admit they are always looking in the rearview mirror and can only tell that things have changed when it is basically too late. Not being a scientist, I am willing to go out on the ledge and say the repetitive weather we have been experiencing for the past few years sure (looks) like a climate shift. A hot spell or a rainy spell lasts a few weeks, not for months. Old farmers I have talked with claim they have never seen an extended rain spell like we are in now. The record books agree. Most farmers can’t find three days to get a hay crop dry and baled, so we have green hay marshmallows festooning the fields. If we do become a temperate rainforest like the Northwest coast, we then won’t grow much more than trees and cabbage.
Once I start railing against our inability to respond, I am invariably asked, “Well, what do you suggest we do?”
Taking up that challenge, I suggest we start today, to build a future that will be resilient in the face of the climate chaos while rapidly reducing our addiction to fossil fuels. Sure, you have heard this before and assumed that you had plenty of time to respond. Maybe you even drive a hybrid car and have insulated your home. It’s not enough even if everyone did that. The climate crisis is literally flooding out our future options. Of course, the summer could suddenly turn to drought like it did last summer. We don’t know. But if we look at the patterns around us, it gets fairly evident that things are going to keep getting worse from here. We have run out of time to leisurely imagine manageable lifestyle choice changes or worse, keep waiting for new technologies that use less gas, and will surely save us from ourselves. Nope, now it’s time to do the best we can to cobble together the most intelligent responses that we know work right now.
It’s time to reverse our rural sprawl lifestyles, start building a lot of downtown housing so that people can move off the hillsides and back into town. People who live in a denser downtown are more resilient to changes in climate and economics because they use much less energy for heat and transportation. To get around the denser town, they will need new ways of sharing rides and using new mobility services that are developed. Too many of us always have a perfect reason why we can’t share rides, walk or downsize because the demands of our lives are unique. Our special circumstances won’t cut it in the future. That’s why we need to get about working to make real change now, not by 2030.
There is a lot to consider in how we can make things happen quickly here.
To the end of suggesting clear options and developments, I and my associates at the Sustainable Montpelier Coalition will be offering a series of essays over the next few months to address various parts of the systematic changes we think are needed before it’s too late and the real coming storms breaks over us.