Fairlee — Environmental action and prominent figures from the Green Mountain State galvanized attendees at the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network’s Community Energy & Climate Action Conference, pushing Saturday’s event to its highest attendance yet after 11 years.
But the biggest name on the slate, keynote speaker and 350.org founder and author Bill McKibben, did his part to jokingly tamp down the excitement after an impassioned introduction by to VECAN’s Johanna Miller.
“My old friend (Miller) is short and enthusiastic, and I’m tall and depressive,” said McKibben, of Ripton, Vt. “My job is to dig the hole from which you then have to climb out of.”
McKibben’s sobering tone was typical of the calls to action heard on Saturday morning at the Lake Morey Resort event, which included presentations from a trio of Upper Valley natives in addition to McKibben — Jared Duval and Sarah Wolfe of the Montpelier-based Energy Action Network and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger — to kick off a daylong series of workshops centered on reaching clean energy targets.
But the dire climate forecasts didn’t deter enthusiasm for the cause. At $50 per ticket, the seminar drew more than 300 individuals, according to VECAN ’s Johanna Miller, nearly 280 of whom had preregistered. That’s an all-time high for the conference, which has been held at Lake Morey for the last several years.
During her opening remarks, Miller called Vermont’s population of 620,000 people “essentially a small city” that nonetheless is home to some of the country’s biggest champions of climate change action, many of whom were packed into the resort’s Terrace Ballroom on Saturday.
And those champions of climate change action found plenty of reason to keep working.
During his keynote speech, McKibben displayed photographs from his recent trip to Greenland, including an image of an electronic chart suggesting he and his party were about a mile inland — even though they were in the open water on a boat.
“The captain said, ‘Oh, that machine is five years old,’ ” McKibben said, echoing an anecdote also included in a recent essay, “How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet,” published in The New Yorker. “He told me, ‘This area was ice as far as you could see five years ago.’ ”
McKibben went on to display a video of a massive ice chunk disintegrating into water in real time.
“It’s somewhat beautiful in it’s own way,” he said of the disappearing ice. “But every time something like that happens, the ocean goes up a fraction of an inch, and it’s happening every day in different parts of the planet.”
McKibben said it was “nothing new” to see recent projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecast that a global temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit could be reached in as little as 11 years, triggering even more record-breaking storms, forest fires, droughts, heat waves and flooding than the planet has seen in the last 10 years.
“Scientists are saying it louder now because more time has passed and the line of the curve we have to travel is getting steeper,” he said.
McKibben did go on to praise activists in Vermont, citing the more than 1,000 residents who joined him for a march to protest a pipeline in the western part of the state 12 years ago and, more recently, an initiative set forth by state legislators vowing for Vermont to consume 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. But, he said, 2050 is coming faster than people might think.
“I know it’s hard for some of you to imagine the passage of 32 years, but it’s coming,” McKibben said. “There is a need for action at real speed.”
Vermont so far is falling well short of its “90 by ’50” target identified as a goal seven years ago, according to a presentation by Energy Action Network’s Duval and Wolfe. Duval, a former Fairlee resident and Lebanon High graduate, and Wolfe, a Sharon Academy alumnus who grew up in Strafford, showed a chart indicating that current emissions standards would put Vermont on track for only about 30 percent renewable energy by 2050. They later noted that Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased 16 percent since 1990, sending it from the second-highest-rated state for carbon emissions per capita to fifth in the nation.
The pair said that Vermont’s transportation sector accounted for 43 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 and that nearly 28 percent was released via thermal heat such as propane and oil to heat buildings.
“That’s more than 70 percent of emissions from those two areas alone,” Duval said following the presentation. “If Vermont wants to get serious about its renewable energy goals, we need a much more ambitious energy plan to reduce fossil fuel use.”
Weinberger, a Hartland native in his seventh year as Burlington’s mayor, said part of that ambition should include what he called a “revenue-neutral carbon fee” that would place tariffs on fossil fuels and be redistributed to the economy.
He used the floor on Saturday to call on Vermont to be the first state to implement such a fee, and announced the formation of the Northeast Mayors for Carbon Pollution Pricing, a newly formed partnership between mayors from throughout the region aiming to put a price on fossil fuel emissions.
Weinberger called current market prices on fuels such as oil and gas “artificially low” for failing to incorporate costs to human health and the environment. He disputed that carbon fees are harmful to local economies, citing a successful carbon tax program in British Columbia and emphasizing that every dollar collected under his proposal would be redistributed to citizens in some form.
“People in this room know that climate change is the real threat to the economy,” he said. “It will shrink the GDP of this country 10 percent by the end of the century, more than double the effects of the great recession.”
Workshops continued throughout the day, hitting upon a variety of environmental topics with titles like “Energy Burden: What it is, how it’s felt and what you can do to help,” “Land use, transportation and housing for low-carbon communities” and “Beneficial Electricrification: A Key Decarbonization Strategy.”
And early birds were able to graze a roomful of information booths upstairs before the presentations, including many Upper Valley Residents. Laura Simon, of Wilder, and West Fairlee resident Geoff Gardner were part of a group collecting signatures for a petition demanding an end to all new fossil fuel infrastructure projects in Vermont.
Simon said she looks forward to the VECAN conference each year.
“It’s an opportunity to gather, brainstorm, and figure out ways to make real change,” she said.