Another view: The dilemma of the Vernon gas plant


The overwhelming support of Vernon residents on Town Meeting day for a proposed fracked gas power plant on the Vermont Yankee site underscores one of the most challenging problems that climate activists face in our efforts to stop the burning of fossil fuels and, especially, the building of the necessary infrastructure. It's a classic instance of being caught between a rock and hard place.

On the one hand, there are the legitimate economic concerns that working and middle class folks have in today's economy. People are understandably worried about paying their taxes and bills, and holding a decent job. This is why the proposed gas plant appears like a godsend seemingly offering relief from a shuttered Vermont Yankee's declining tax revenue, as well as future employment.

Viewed from this perspective, concern about the fate of the planet becomes somewhat nebulous and abstract. Although equally here and now, the climate crisis doesn't share the immediacy of more bread and butter issues for many people as reflected in the 877 to 153 vote for the gas plant.

This in no way negates the equally valid sense of urgency that those of us who are aware of the dire circumstances we face at present are experiencing. We know that we've run out of time. Climate catastrophe, including the very real possibility of the extinction of the human species, is imminent if we don't act quickly to radically end the burning of fossil fuels.

Furthermore, even if we were to accomplish this politically challenging task today, climate change will remain with us, and become even worse over the days and years ahead because of such natural phenomena as tipping points, self-reinforcing feedback loops, and climate lag

The latter, for example, is the 40 year delay between the time that greenhouse gas is emitted into the atmosphere and the resulting effect of increased temperatures. Thus, the consequences of climate change we've experienced up to now--the melting of the Arctic, Antarctic, and glaciers, acidification of the oceans, horrific storms, long droughts, extreme heat waves, uncontrollable fires, oceans rising, food and water insecurity, the 200 species that become extinct every day, the thousands of climate refugees, and the 2 million human beings that have been dying every year from climate change--are a result of what we put into the air many years ago. Obviously, we need to prepare for what's coming as best we can.

How can we bridge this divide between two legitimate concerns?

To begin with, climate activists must accept the economic reality that people are faced with. There is no way we can begin to have a conversation with others about the climate crisis, and the need to act on the danger it represents to all of us, unless at the same time we address what people who are economically up against it see as their core issue right now.

To do this successfully, however, those of us on the outside need to avoid imposing ourselves on the good people of Vernon by parachuting into their town with our condemnation of the gas plant, We need to remember that, for years, Vernon was beset with anti-nuke demonstrators, letters to the editor, and personal confrontations about the clear and present danger of VY. Notwithstanding the validity of these concerns, the consequence for the residents of Vernon is that they came to feel like the pariah of Windham County, if not the State of Vermont. Understandably, they are now a bit gun shy about a new group of outsiders trying to tell them what to do.

Hence, relationship building is imperative. Whatever climate activists do, we need to begin our efforts with quiet conversations, certainly with people we know in Vernon, as well as those who oppose the gas plant. Our purpose is to just listen, and to take our lead from the locals as to how we might help. Though seemingly counterintuitive to the unprecedented climate crisis we face, and the urgency it evokes in us to act with commensurate speed, there are moments when we are best advised to slow down and be patient.

As relationships develop, perhaps one way we might work together is to explore economic alternatives to the gas plant. This kind of constructive option was recently suggested in a report entitled, "Reimaging Brayton Point," whereby a polluting coal-burning facility in Massachusetts could be converted into a clean energy hub that would benefit the community. Might something like this, or another alternative with jobs and tax revenue, be a possibility for Vernon?

But as it was with VY, the potential consequences of a gas plant in Vernon extend beyond its borders. Outsiders, too, have skin in this game. In addition to the existential issues of climate change that fossil fuel infrastructure exacerbates, there are also the health and safety concerns that such a plant presents to those of us who neighbor Vernon. As the earlier forums on the issue revealed, these apprehensions are shared by at least some Vernon residents. Through their leadership, we could help in an effort to educate and advocate around these issues.

Finally, it's important that those of us in southeastern Vermont who are working in solidarity with our Massachusetts neighbors to prevent the construction of the Kinder Morgan pipeline continue and intensify our efforts. To stop KM will stop the Vernon gas plant, as the latter is completely dependent upon a 7-mile feed from that pipeline to exist at all.

The bottom line is that ultimately we need to act. Our lives, and those of our children and grandchildren depend on our doing so.

Tim Stevenson is a community organizer with Post Oil Solutions and author of "Resilience and Resistance: Building Sustainable Communities for a Post Oil Age."


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