Clock Running Out to Act on Climate Change
By Michael J. Caduto
The recent United Nations report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leaves no place to hide nor time to procrastinate on taking actions to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate global warming. Average global temperatures have already increased by 1.1°C (2.0°F) since the advent of the industrial age. At the current rate of global warming, sometime in the early 2030s we will cross the Rubicon of 1.5°C (2.7°F), beyond which we will no longer be able to avert the most serious impacts of climate change, ranging from extreme heat, drought and flooding to species extinction and worldwide food shortages.
Some existing international climate change agreements would result in Earth’s average temperature heating up by 2.1-2.9°C (3.8-5.2)°F. But as the average global temperature rise approaches 2.0°C (3.6°F), summer Arctic sea ice would likely disappear and coral reefs would die off.
How did it come to this? Humankind has squandered precious time since the industrial revolution began spewing carbon into the atmosphere in the mid 18th century. As a result, nations are already spending hundreds of billions of dollars to mitigate the ongoing crises caused by global warming.
Many previous studies and international plans, including the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, have focused on reducing carbon emissions toward net-zero by 2050 in order to prevent global warming from crossing the 1.5°C benchmark. But the IPCC study leaves no doubt: industrialized countries must cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, and eliminate them altogether by 2050, with wealthier countries achieving net-zero by 2040. This would give the world a 50% chance of stopping global warming at the critical 1.5°C.
Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2020 (H.688) falls short of the new IPCC marks—requiring the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030; and 80% below by 2050. Woodstock, Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan calls for meeting 40% of the Town’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2035, and 90% by 2050. The Climate Emergency and Action Resolution that was approved by Woodstock’s Select Board and Village Trustees in February 2020, however, is well aligned with the new IPCC goals: committing Woodstock to a just transition of climate mitigation and adaptation that results in net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Woodstock, Vermont inherited a unique responsibility for leadership in fighting climate change. Woodstock’s connection to climate change dates back to George Perkins Marsh, whom many consider to be America’s first conservationist in the Western tradition (following millennia of Earth stewardship traditions practiced by Vermont’s Abenaki and other indigenous peoples). In fact, Marsh’s 1847 lecture to the Agricultural Society of Rutland, which was presented 14 years before Abraham Lincoln was elected president, is the earliest direct reference to human-induced climate change:
“It is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action. The draining of swamps and the clearing of forests perceptibly effect the evaporation from the earth, and of course the mean quantity of moisture suspended in the air… Within narrow limits too, domestic fires and artificial structures create and diffuse increased warmth, to an extent that may affect vegetation. The mean temperature of London is a degree or two higher than that of the surrounding country.”
With these early observations, Marsh touches on water vapor’s role as a greenhouse gas. He also observes an urban phenomenon now known as a “heat island,” in which the artificial surfaces in urban environments—such as concrete, asphalt and steel— absorb and radiate heat more readily than the leaves and other surfaces found in natural environments, raising the average temperature in cities and towns by 2-5°F above that of the surrounding countryside.
Fast-forward more than 170 years after Marsh’s prescient speech about climate change. Many are proud of Marsh’s environmental heritage, and embrace it as Woodstock’s legacy. It has inspired action on numerous environmental issues over time, and the story is well told at the Marsh-Billing-Rockefeller National Historical Park. But what does Marsh’s legacy mean in these times and at this particular juncture in our fight to meet the carbon emissions goals that we must address if we are to steward this environment into the hands of generations to come?
Sustainable Woodstock (SW) traces its roots back to 2007 when a group of people affiliated with Woodstock’s Unitarian Church met to explore what they could do about climate change. SW is now working with the Town, Village, the Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission Intermunicipal Regional Energy Coordinator (IREC) and other partners to advocate for projects that will achieve measurable results in the commitments that Woodstock has made to fight climate change. SW’s goals and initiatives aim to do this in a way that makes sustainable opportunities available in an equitable way so that everyone, regardless of means, can benefit from reduced energy consumption and participate in lowering carbon emissions. We are all in this together.
Working with many partners, success stories to date include sourcing solar energy to power Woodstock’s municipal buildings, designing the new Philip B. Swanson Emergency Services Building to be net-zero ready, catalyzing multiple community-wide household solarization projects, taking a leadership role in creating the community solar array at Rainbow Playschool, implementing weatherization & energy-efficiency improvements to many households and supporting Union Arena’s groundbreaking success in becoming the first net-zero ice arena in the United States. On March 1, 2022 Woodstock citizens took a big forward-looking step by voting to fund energy efficiency improvements to municipal buildings that will reduce propane use (and cost) at town facilities by as much as 10,000 gallons per year and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5%.
We have made significant progress, but now we must redouble efforts. There is no room for delay or for going half-in on any new projects or remodels to existing buildings and infrastructure. Each project needs to be designed to achieve net-zero for energy and carbon emissions. For example, as Woodstock now plans for renovations at the Woodstock Wastewater Treatment Plant, and for constructing a new Woodstock Union High School and Middle School, we need to carry Marsh’s legacy forward and take the reins of leadership in making these and all future renovations and new construction net-zero.
The clock has nearly run out to act on climate change. The Haudenosaunee (People of the Longhouse) believe that each action we take today needs to be made in such a way as to make the world a better place for children who are born seven generations hence. Some elders speak of 14 generations: considering the wisdom of the elders from the previous 7 generations while planning for the 7 generations to come.
Climate change is a global environmental and humanitarian crisis; the greatest existential challenge that humans have faced in our relationship to the environment. It is also a mirror that reveals what humans have wrought, and what we are willing to do about it. How will our actions over the next 7 years reflect upon us?
What You Can Do:
- Express your strong support for net-zero designs in all new municipal buildings and renovations of existing structures in your town and village.
- Organize members of your community with the goal of creating Net-Zero Neighborhoods by 2030. The Upper Valley is already the first region in Vermont or New Hampshire to create a position of Regional Energy Coordinator (Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission). Let’s build on that momentum with leadership that will inspire other communities to act.
- ACT NOW to accomplish whatever you have been considering doing in your own life to reduce carbon emissions, whether it be weatherization or installing a heat pump or solar panels. Given the generous clean-energy incentives, rebates and discounts presently available under the federal Inflation Reduction Act, there will never be a better or more timely opportunity to save a significant amount of money while making a difference.
- Voice your concerns about the immediacy of the fight against global warming to your local, statewide and national leaders. Encourage them to support every legislative effort to enforce carbon emission reduction goals and to direct even more resources toward fighting global warming.
George Perkins Marsh—pioneer conservationist and author (1864) of Man and Nature (Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action)—was born in Woodstock, Vermont in 1801. Library of Congress photo.”