David L. Deen: They are coming to Vt. to escape climate change - let's be prepared

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There is an interesting policy discussion going on right now about attracting people to Vermont to fill our jobs and stimulate entrepreneur activities. It seems one can get paid a bonus to come to Vermont and work. And maybe that is all well and good but there is a reality right on the horizon that will make this discussion moot in light of one of the expected impacts of climate change.

According to a paper summarizing the effects of climate change recently published in Science magazine, if ocean levels rise as high as they did during the last period the earth's temperature increased to the predicted levels, coastal areas in the US will become uninhabitable. The 20 C (3.60 F) change in the earth's temperature predicted as an unstoppable certainty for the end of this century will raise ocean levels nearly 20 feet above their current levels. The timing of the ocean rise could speed up if the Thwaites and associated glaciers in West Antarctica collapse as feared sometime soon.

The weather changes that are happening right now with more intense storms have increased flood damage to personal property and public infrastructure. We already have significant infrastructure challenges in our inland, upland, ocean-less state, but in our state that is elevated well above 20 feet above sea level, some would ask if we really need to worry about sea level rise.

This sea rise is not "storm surge" as with the hurricanes that hit us every fall. Storm surge comes with the storm and goes when the wind dies. This climate change caused sea level rise is permanent relative to the human time span.

Here in New England we will see much of Manhattan and eastern NJ, most of the south shore of Long Island and much of Boston area along with other coastal areas in Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island lose habitable land to sea rise. Projection maps show that in downtown Boston only Boston Commons and the Massachusetts State House will remain dry, being the highest elevations in Boston, but of course you will need take a boat from Cambridge to get to them.

The rise in sea level will displace over 2 million people just in New England, and those 2 million people rudely jolted by enlightened self-interest will be forced to move away from the inundation caused by the rising sea. These will not be refugees who will show up with all their remaining possessions in a pillow case or cardboard box. They will be home grown U.S. immigrants and will want, and more than likely be able to pay for the services of a modern society when they get here.

That is a lot of people on the move to somewhere else and being New Englanders, they are unlikely to move out west, they will stay here in NE somewhere, and some will be coming to Vermont and create more demands for power, housing, schools, food systems, entertainment, hospitals, and transportation in those new (and dry) areas.

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They will not all come at once, but as a society we have a history of not reacting to the big things until too late and nationwide with an expected 48,000 square miles of land inundated and 23 million people flooded out, this sea level rise will be the largest event driven migration in U.S. history.

So, they are coming here and although we should graciously welcome our fellow citizens flooded from their homes and businesses, we need to see that their needs do not compromise what we hold valuable: our remaining clean water, healthy forests, and diverse ecosystems. It will be imperative that for the sake of the ongoing health of our waters, forests and the ecosystems within them that we begin to prepare now for the eventuality presence of this migration to Vermont.

They are coming but even in the face of increased difficulties in reaching consensus in a larger population than Vermont's current hardy 600 thousand plus souls, we must vigorously maintain our open process to resolve public policy questions. We welcome them but not their bad habits of not voting and there will be some noteworthy public policy tensions as more urban expectations bump into rural perspectives at town meeting and the legislature.

They are coming and that will be OK if we strengthen our resolve to protect our historic settlement pattern that embraces people, commerce, and industry locating in our town and more urban centers while keeping the surrounding land lightly populated or in agriculture with forested open space surrounding it all.

There are of course more issues relative to this population migration including adequate and affordable housing, schools, medical services, homelessness, jobs, and social services but this is just a heads up that climate change means more than more intense weather here in Vermont.

We need to welcome our fellow citizens but see that their needs do not compromise what we hold valuable right now: our remaining clean water, healthy forests, diverse ecosystems, and our working landscape. Oh yeah, we will likely have plenty of people to fill our jobs.

David L. Deen is a former Democratic state representative from Westminster and an honorary trustee of the Connecticut River Conservancy. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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