This commentary is by Jim Stiles, a resident of St. Albans who supports Vermont’s weatherization policy effort as a volunteer, mostly focusing on technical approaches.
For decades now, the world has failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As a direct result, serious climate change has become unavoidable, which means that just cutting greenhouse gas emissions is no longer enough to protect the people of Vermont from climate change.
To reduce the consequences of the world’s ongoing failure to cut greenhouse gases, we must now adapt to our changing climate.
Many people do not realize that there are two different approaches to reducing the impacts of the violent windstorms, droughts, intense precipitation events, heat waves and other impacts of climate change that are here and growing worse.
In theory, the better approach is to fix the root cause by cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which is what Vermont has been focusing on. However, failing that (as the world continues to do), we can take a more practical approach and prepare for what is coming.
While greenhouse gas reduction must be a global effort to succeed, climate adaptation allows small groups of people — even individuals — to protect themselves and those around them. Climate adaptation also brings another benefit. In the process of adapting to climate change, we can also cut greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it appears likely that policies built around climate adaptation might well yield greater greenhouse gas reductions than current policies do, and at lower net cost.
How might this be possible? Greenhouse gas reduction efforts focus on maximizing benefit to the world, with incidental benefits for the people doing the work. Climate adaptation projects are, first and foremost, designed to benefit the people who do the work. Any greenhouse gas reductions achieved, although potentially large, are secondary. Given the personal benefits, climate adapters will tend to be in a better position to take on more climate-related work.
A good place to start thinking about this is with roofs. High winds can strip roofs from buildings, which can lead to leaks, which may cause only modest problems like damage to sheetrock and water-stained fabrics. Damage can also be more severe. In extreme situations, first the roofing goes, then the roof sheathing goes, which weakens the structure. In the worst case, walls are then blown down. This extreme type of failure is increasingly common in areas subject to hurricanes and tornadoes.
Although this has rarely, if ever, been seen in Vermont, that may change.
The potential for more and more serious wildfires poses another challenge. Because wildfires in California will presumably always be worse than in Vermont, less preparation will be needed here. However, upgrading to a fireproof roof (which is one good way to protect houses from wildfires) while in the process of upgrading for wind may be worthwhile if the additional cost is low.
Finally, a great time to upgrade your roof insulation is when you are upgrading your roof. Since the roof is typically the largest path of heat loss in a building, you can save money while also making your building more resilient.
There are many opportunities like this for building upgrades. They save money and make your building resilient to the impacts of climate change, and cut greenhouse gas emissions. Every part of a building as well as its yards and gardens can be adapted to both better tolerate and help prevent climate change. State policies should be adjusted to take full advantage of these opportunities.
Vermont’s current Climate Action Plan does a good job laying out a reasonable approach to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. That work is crucially important, but until everyone around the world is doing their share, its success will be limited. Until then, adapting to what is coming is our only way to protect Vermont.
Vermont needs a new type of climate action plan — one that fully integrates or leads with climate adaptation. Pieces of such a plan can be found in the current Climate Action Plan, but a great deal more work is needed.
If you think it’s important to prepare for the climate challenges that are on the way, you should consider attending a public session of the Keep Vermont Cool Tour starting at the end of November and going into December. Show up and ask them to reorganize their priorities to focus more on adapting to climate change. Check out these sites for details on dates and times for a meeting near you.
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