Not Losing Our Heads

What is it about climate change that elicits such a panic in us? Perhaps it is the unrelating force of nature? The overwhelming sense of powerlessness we feel when storms, wind, fire, and water encroach upon our lives. In the face of such (un)natural disasters, maybe we clutch to whatever agency we can muster? Or, could it be that the prospect of our grandchildren not experiencing the same planet we did terrifies us. It could be a bit of both, or a whole host of other reasons.

Whatever the reason may be, this myopic focus on the carbon mitigation flavor of the day does not serve us well. Yes of course we should highlight practical everyday steps we can all take to lessen our own impact on the planet. However, many of the conversations taking place among policymakers in our state have focused so closely on specific carbon mitigation efforts that other important factors have fallen by the wayside.

My guess is that most Vermonters view protecting our environment as an ethical obligation. We also view taking care of our neighbors, self-sufficiency, and sustainable living as part of our ethos. What does that mean? It means that we value clean water, rich soils, thriving forests, and healthy people as much as we value clean air. Our pursuit of each of these goals are not mutually exclusive but they can be at odds from time to time in the context of how we, as a state, deploy our resources.

Here are some examples:

  1. Vermont has finite taxing capacity and finite budgetary resources (that is unless Champ suddenly starts dragging up sunken treasure from Lake Champlain). If we continue down the path of throwing more money and regressive financial burden on Vermonters, we risk undermining the health of our social fabric. A dichotomy we should not take lightly.
  2. Arguably, the water pollution generated by our agricultural fields and municipal wastewater systems have a far greater impact (at least locally) on our ecosystem and quality of life of our residents. Imagine if we spent the same time and effort on solving that problem that we spend on discussions around reducing carbon emissions?
  3. Zoning rules at the state level incentivize building in compact downtown areas (aka flood zones) while local zoning often restricts density, pushing development to the outskirts of town. The net effect is little new housing development and the housing that is built often disrupts either forest ecosystems or waterways, or both. Yet not building the housing harms Vermonters. This is a great example of where issues related to all three aspects have been leveraged for political gain, most often gentrification.

The point I am making here is that every action we take has an impact on our environment. Some of those impacts can be felt much closer to home than our carbon emissions are felt. I was fishing in St. Albans bay this fall and the algae bloom was so thick that you couldn’t see the bottom in two feet of water. We did that. Vermonters did that.

While panic around climate change is understandable, we can’t lose our heads. There are real ecological issues that we should be dealing with that impact us even more directly than carbon emissions currently do. We can balance all of these things, but there is more to being an environmentalist and a humanist than carbon-cutting.

Ben Kinsley has over a decade of public policy experience in Vermont. Working for non-profit organizations, he has shaped public policy in areas such as education, elections, and ethics. He currently serves on the board of directors for Campaign for Vermont, a non-partisan advocacy group seeking to grow the state’s middle class.

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