Legislature kicks off climate change hearings

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(Host) The Vermont Legislature has kicked off a three-week crash course in the science and policy implications of climate change.

Author Bill McKibben opened the hearings, with a talk that was both frightening and hopeful. He urged lawmakers to make Vermont a national leader to control greenhouse gases.

VPR’s John Dillon was there:

(Dillon) Environmentalist Bill McKibben says that as the earth warms, polar ice sheets will melt and sea levels rise. Even the mid-range of computer projections, he says, predicts a five-degree temperature rise by the end of this century.

(McKibben) “Were that to happen, the earth would be far warmer than it’s been for a very long time. Not warmer than it’s been in human history, not warmer than it’s been in pre-history, warmer than it’s been since primate evolution.”

(Dillon) The culprit behind all this planetary change is carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. The carbon dioxide in the atmosphere blocks the earth’s heat from radiating into space.

Alan Betts is a climate scientist and president of the Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering.

He told the lawmakers that humans today are releasing carbon that was stored in the earth hundreds of millions of years ago.

(Betts) “Right now we are not in balance. This is not something that is also not appreciated. Even if we stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow, and you know how unrealistic that is, the climate will warm another 1 degree Fahrenheit simply because the earth is in energy imbalance. And it will have to warm up another 1 degree in order to radiate the energy into space. And that will take another 50 years.”

(Dillon) McKibben issued a challenge to lawmakers. He said state and national governments have less than 10 years to control greenhouse gas pollution or the planet will tip toward climate catastrophe.

He urged the Legislature to do more to promote renewable energy. He said a first step would be to require power companies to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources.

And he said lawmakers should change course on big highway projects that promote sprawl.

(McKibben) “The Circ highway? Suburban sprawl? More big box stores on the far outskirts of town? These are global warming machines. That’s what they produce, more than anything else.”

(Dillon) Lawmakers seem eager to learn more. Joyce Errecart is a Republican from Shelburne. She says the energy, transportation and agriculture committees should focus on global warming. But she says the Legislature should not overlook basic pocketbook issues, like property tax reform.

(Errecart) “And Vermont, with 660,000 people is not going to change the entire Untied States, although of course we can be important as leaders in some areas. But what I heard about from people when I went door-to-door was that they can’t afford their school taxes.”

(Dillon) Over the next two weeks, the Legislature will study what other states are doing and what steps Vermont can take against global warming.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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