Our Opinion: Kicking the fossil fuel habit requires a steady strategy

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Brattleboro Common Sense is working to wake everyone up about the need to start now, not later, to reduce our carbon footprint and slow, if not stop, the effects of human-caused global warming. Their passion for waking up passive power-brokers who are ignoring the imminent dangers of climate change is admirable.

Now that they have asked the Brattleboro Select Board to adopt their climate emergency declaration, it's time to examine that declaration and see what it is they have in mind.

It's well-intentioned, but it's a starting point rather than a finished product.

The declaration begins by accepting at face value U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' assertion that climate change must be responded to "as if it were a devastating military attack."

Climate change is deadly serious business. That's a science fact, and the rapid melting of ice in Alaska and Greenland as we speak ought to scare everyone. But likening it to a "devastating military attack" on our soil — an allusion to widespread death and destruction caused by bombs and guns — is rhetoric allowed to run too far off its leash.

Yes, climate change has already taken lives and destroyed property, and it's likely to get worse. But that damage has not risen to anything near the catastrophic outcomes of a military attack. And war, while an urgent metaphor, is also a poor choice; in war, the ends justify the means, truth and logic disappear, and human nature relapses to its very worst impulses. Just consider what the war on drugs has wrought.

The declaration goes on to suggest "rationing of valuable resources." Here's where specifics are much needed in order for this initiative to win support.

Which valuable resources shall we ration? Under whose authority? And with what consequences for failure to comply? Readers are left to speculate. Food? Gasoline? Water? Electricity? Goods made with or transported using fossil fuels?

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The Select Board, and its constituents, need to know what they're supporting — and what they're being asked to give away.

Then there's the end goal: "Zero emissions across all sectors of the economy by 2025," with that effort "observed and reported by a sustainability coordinator or other appropriate office of the town."

Does that mean no gasoline or diesel engines in Brattleboro in six years?

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Zero emissions is a worthy goal. The era of fossil fuels is coming to an end, and hastening that end can create industries and jobs, as well as respect life on this planet.

Is doing so in six years realistic? Not unless the Brattleboro Select Board closes Brattleboro's gas stations — and then blockades the bridges to New Hampshire, since it's safe to presume the Granite State won't close its gas stations because Brattleboro said so.

Would those things really happen? Again, readers are left to speculate. But the declaration calls for regular meetings where climate crisis regulations can be proposed, and "that the selectboard shall enact emergency ordinances per charter article 4 section 6 AA to test the proposals arising from those meetings."

Lest anyone mistake us, Brattleboro Common Sense is correct: We need to reduce carbon emissions to zero, and soon. But in reality, that won't take place overnight. Measured steps — aggressive, but measured — will get us there more successfully.

Our fossil fuel addiction is like other bad habits such as cigarettes and junk food. It was easy to get addicted to the freedom of the open road, and to the cheeseburgers one could buy from a drive-up window while doing so. Kicking the habit will be hard. But unhealthy habits can be overcome with a plan and persistence.

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Ever gone on a diet or tried to quit cigarettes cold turkey? The reason many diets and smoking cessation efforts fail is that the person who needs to make a dramatic change also thinks he or she can, or must, do so in an unrealistic time frame.

Crash diets and cold turkey stop smoking efforts usually fail because they are built on unrealistic expectations. But simply unfriending Joe Camel doesn't address the underlying behavior. And when such efforts fail, that failure convinces the person that they cannot succeed, so why bother trying?

We can't let "why bother" win when it comes to the only planet we have.

A more realistic plan with aggressive but attainable, measurable goals for emissions reduction over time is a far better strategy than presuming Brattleboro can achieve zero emissions in six years. A realistic strategy does not presume Brattleboro can make up its own laws to do so.

The Brattleboro Common Sense declaration really gets it right at its end: "And finally we the people of Brattleboro resolve to endure hardship and self-sacrifice, exert our utmost energy, and summon the deepest truthfulness and courage even without certainty to secure the survival of our children, ourselves, all humanity and this divinely beautiful natural world, which has sustained us through the ages with unspoken love."

Let's focus on "unspoken love."

Brattleboro can move forward on climate change. In fact, it must. But it should do so with conversations rather than declarations. Rather than adopt it as-is, the Select Board should make it a priority for the town Energy Committee. That group, working with interested citizens, can surely craft a climate plan for Brattleboro that sets ambitious, attainable climate goals, and a specific framework for doing so.


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