MONTPELIER -- Writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben gave Vermont lawmakers a dire warning about climate change Wednesday, calling it "the biggest challenge by far that humans have ever faced," and calling for steps including a big new effort to save energy by insulating thousands of homes in the state.
Speaking to a joint session of the House and Senate at the invitation of House Speaker Shap Smith, the Ripton resident and scholar in residence at Middlebury College called on lawmakers to take immediate steps to address climate change, and on society to make broader and longer-term changes in its use of energy.
McKibben said even big steps taken now may not be enough to reverse the damage already done and avert catastrophe. Already, human beings have warmed the planet about 1 degree Celsius, and half the Arctic ice Neil Armstrong saw from the Moon in 1969 is gone, McKibben said.
He said that "even if we do everything right, we are going to come right up to the 2 degree red line that the world’s governments have declared is the absolute and final red line for climate chaos. We shouldn’t go there, obviously. If one degree melts the Arctic, we’re fools to find out what 2 degrees will do."
McKibben’s book "The End of Nature," written in 1989, was among the earliest books for a general audience on what was then called the greenhouse effect -- the phenomenon in which excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere traps heat from the sun on the Earth, with less of it radiating out into space.
In his speech in the House chamber, McKibben made three key recommendations on matters now getting the attention of lawmakers.
-- He said the state should adopt a new "thermal efficiency" program, modeled on an electrical efficiency program launched a decade ago that has won international acclaim for holding down Vermont’s power demand. Thermal efficiency refers to the energy used to heat buildings, and McKibben said Vermont should move aggressively to promote insulation and weather-tightening of its aging housing stock. "It’s high time Vermont stopped heating the outdoors," he said.
-- McKibben said the state should block any effort by Canadian energy companies to ship oil extracted from tar sands in the western part of that country through a pipeline that runs across northern Vermont between Montreal and Portland, Maine. Environmental groups have been warning recently that plans to do so are in the works, though the companies that own the pipeline and that are shipping tar sands oil across Canada say that’s not true.
-- He said lawmakers should reject calls for a three-year moratorium on large-scale wind power development in Vermont. Backers of the moratorium object to wind turbines on towers more than 400 feet tall on Vermont’s mountain ridges, but McKibben said using wind to replace power generated with fossil fuels could help avert a climate crisis that otherwise will do far greater harm to Vermont’s mountain environments.
McKibben’s speech capped a day on which three House committees heard from a range of farm and business representatives on the likely impacts of climate change on their enterprises and what should be done about it.
In response to questions after his talk, McKibben said he did not see nuclear power, whose backers point to its low carbon emissions, as a practical solution, given a lack of public acceptance in a post-Fukushima age.
His remarks were greeted with some skepticism by the head of the Republican minority in the Vermont House. Minority Leader Don Turner of Milton issued a statement saying Vermonters can’t afford a tax increase to pay for thermal efficiency efforts, and he criticized McKibben for declining to embrace nuclear power.