Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Climate Change: Solutions from 19th & 21st Centuries

NASA climate expert James Hansen recently told The Observer that the Obama administration offers the world a last chance to stop global climate change. If it fails, the London newspaper said, global disaster — melted sea caps, flooded cities, species extinctions and spreading deserts — awaits mankind.

“We cannot now afford to put off change any longer,” Hansen said. “We have to get on a new path within this new administration. We have only four years left for Obama to set an example to the rest of the world.”

Let’s assume Hansen, who is one of the world authorities on climate change, is only half-right. Or rather, let’s assume the timetable is twice as long.

In that case we’ve got eight years to change our lives and pull the planet back from the brink of disaster.

If you’re like me, these kinds of scenarios are just too abstract. They engender a certain sense of befuddlement.

It’s like trying to imagine how many a trillion is. How Native Americans survived in this climate before the advent of wool. How the Cubs are ever going to win a World Series.

So let’s break it down a little bit. Figure out what we can do closer to home.

And let’s also let ourselves off the hook for a moment. Assume that, like me, you’re not going to trade in your gas guzzler for a Honda hybrid. And we’re not going to begin running our cars on french-fry grease and become one of those people with a bumper sticker that says, “Car and driver powered by vegetables.”

Instead, let’s talk about what we can do as a community.

While I might not like every move made by Middlebury College, let’s be honest — it is on balance an enormous asset to Addison County.

Without the internationally recognized excellence that the college brings us – not to mention a huge influx of dollars at $50,000 per student – without that, Middlebury is some version of an outlet-mall shopping town like Manchester, or an undistinguished college town like Poultney.

So what does this have to do with being on the Eve of Destruction?

With its new biomass plant producing heat and electricity, the college has cut its carbon footprint by a massive 40 percent. Few other institutions, anywhere, can make that claim.

The college community is also teaching us -- and Step It Up and 350.org are teaching the world -- that climate change will take down our civilization if we don’t meet the challenge.

Closer to home, there’s a role for the college in helping our county be a demonstration project in how to adapt, survive and even prosper in this potentially cataclysmic age.

But of course the college can’t do this alone.

And maybe the stars are lining up so that several other elements of our community are positioned to be essential parts of this not-so-little demonstration project.

Who are these elements?

Roughly speaking, they shake out like this:

* Middlebury and the county’s business community, especially the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation, and the Better Middlebury Partnership (formerly the business association).

* Town governments.

* The increasingly maturing coalition of those aligned with the land. By which I mean farmers looking for a livelihood not tied to the price of milk; localvores; vendors at farmers markets; and those of us willing to pay a fair price directly to local producers.

Whatever the past grudges among town government, business people and the college, this is a county full of very smart, community-oriented people. We know these times require us to do more than just make a living and raise our kids right.

We’re at a turning point. And it’s up to the adults in town to do the right thing.

So what’s the right thing?

I say we need to declare ourselves a Green County, and every one of our towns a Green Town. Then we need to follow through with actions that make these declarations a reality.

The obvious: Any steps we take need to be both environmentally and economically sustainable.

It’s not enough to say we need better jobs for high school grads and faculty spouses. Nor is it enough to say we need to turn off our idling engines and buy local vegetables and dairy products.

In my perfect world I see a compact of town (government), gown (college), business organizations and localvore environmentalists that focuses on a few local solutions. These solutions should look back to the 19th century, and ahead to the 21st. All of them are achievable within five years.

Energy production: We need hydro from Otter Creek, majestic wind turbines on our hilltops and farms, solar, geothermal, good insulation, and a workable funding mechanism to make these a reality. A good place to start could be to fund “alternative” energy through property taxes, just like we pay for town water and sewer. They’re doing it Palm Desert, Calif, which is as conservative a town as you can find. We can do it here.

Food: Vermont used to grow its own food and sell the surplus to the cities. Today, farmers markets are becoming profitable enough to be an income supplement for a growing number of county residents.

But to succeed here and stop relying on 747’s to ship us winter fruits and vegetables from Chile, we need to create the capacity to process our food. We need canneries and slaughterhouses, organic or at least more sustainable dairy operations, mills and milk processing and more – everything possible to turn our potential bounty into a functioning, more broadly based, local agricultural economy built on necessity and our love of local food.

Because when the price of gas hits $10 – and you can bet the farm it’ll happen in the next decade – local food may be the only sustainable solution we’ll have.

Broad band: The time for manufacturing in Addison County is passing. We need knowledge workers who can live anywhere but choose to live here. We need companies that rely on high-speed Internet infrastructure and the low-impact businesses that will employ local workers and enrich our cultural life.

But none of this will happen if we don’t do it together.

Without the town, the college, the land-aligned and the business community working together, the clock wil just keep on ticking for four more years and a planet that much closer to disaster.

That’s my list for local solutions.

What’s on yours?

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday. Email him at gregdennisvt@yahoo.com

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