Resilience in the wake of a changing climate

Monday December 31, 2012

"This is not the time for illusion or evasion; it is a time for transformation"

-- David Orr, 2011

The devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy last month serves as a sad reminder that climate change is real; and it is having a very real and detrimental impact on our communities, our families and our livelihoods. The economic and human costs of Sandy are staggering. We cannot wait for the next Sandy or Irene, or the next historic blizzard, heat wave, drought or wildfire. We must address the causes of climate change and prepare for its inevitable impacts. We need to plan, and we need to act.

Vermont has an opportunity to lead this effort. Living in small communities, close to the land, we know first-hand that everything is interconnected; vibrant communities, healthy people, well-balanced ecosystems and a strong economy go hand-in-hand. We see that when ecological systems become unbalanced there is a corresponding detrimental impact on our lives and our pocketbooks. We need look no further than our backyard for evidence that this is so: in places where pollution from storm water runoff has made the waters in Lake Champlain un-swimmable, businesses that rely on visitors to the lake are suffering. Where air quality is poor, increasing numbers of children are experiencing asthma attacks that cause unnecessary suffering and economic hardship as parents miss work and pay thousands of dollars in medical expenses. Where wetlands have been compromised or destroyed, flood damage becomes more severe, impacting lives and seriously impairing already strained budgets.

After witnessing the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, author Andrew Zolli wrote in a New York Times commentary that we must learn to be resilient - "to imbue our communities, institutions and infrastructure with greater flexibility, intelligence and responsiveness to extreme events." At the same time, we need to take steps now to ensure that our ecosystems can bounce back and adapt to the changes we are experiencing. When we protect our environment we invest in our future resilience.

So let's begin to envision what Vermont would look like as a collection of resilient communities. In each of our cities, towns and villages we can begin to identify our strengths and vulnerabilities. Let's think creatively about the investments we could make today that will help us survive, and even thrive, in the face of unexpected challenges. Let's rethink how we build (or rebuild) our transportation infrastructure; how we get and deliver our energy; where and how we grow our communities and preserve or restore ecosystems; and how we create greater economic opportunities for our neighbors.

These are all issues we are looking at as a part of the work we are doing in Governor Shumlin's Climate Cabinet. However, one thing we know is that, while government has to be part of the solution, a lot of the changes we need to see require all Vermonters to get involved. And many of them have:

-- Our shared environmental ethic means that Vermonters are clamoring for information about how they can help ensure our ecosystems remain resilient into the future

-- Communities are rebuilding our battered infrastructure with climate change in mind

-- Our planners are considering ways to reconnect rivers with their flood plains so that our communities might be protected from future floods

-- We are investing in a smart grid and building new renewable energy projects

-- Volunteers across the state are helping with early alerts for new invasive pests and our public health officials are working together to anticipate and educate the public about recognizing diseases that may be new to the area.

-- The "buy local" and the local food movements, and investments in our Working Landscape initiative are helping local farmers, foresters and artisans. This makes our communities more economically resilient by keeping dollars local, while reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

-- Our children lead the nation in getting outdoors to learn and play, ensuring that the next generation will understand the importance of the natural environment to our well-being

The difficulties we face in the wake of Irene and now Sandy serve as stark reminders that the work we are doing to create resilient communities is vitally important. These are changing and challenging times; but one thing we have learned as Vermonters is that by working together we can make a difference for ourselves and for future generations.

Deb Markowitz is Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.


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