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Courtney Commentary: Put it in Reverse


By Elizabeth Courtney as seen in the Rutland Herald:

I recently heard Paul Hawken — the ecology of commerce and drawdown guru — speak about “reversing” climate change. Hawken spoke at the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s thought-provoking Climate Economy Summit, which brought together experts from around the country.

He questioned the language we use when we talk about “fighting” or “combating” global warming. Instead, he speculated that what we really need is to “reverse” global warming. My reaction to this idea was a forehead-slapping “Duh, well, of course!” Why haven’t we been using words like reverse when talking about climate change? Why should we merely adapt to or mitigate a changing climate? We can set a higher goal. And while we’re at it, why not “reverse” ecological degradation, too?

In many places around the world, we have not only used, but abused and overused the ecological values of our wetlands, woodlands and farmlands. In the name of GDP and development, many cities have grown without understanding or respecting ecosystems’ services and their vulnerabilities to thoughtless growth. Few have learned, metaphorically or literally, to listen to the rivers’ need to meander. These slights are costing us dearly with the advent of climate change.

Remember Irene? Through our actions and inactions, knowingly or with ignorance or self-interest, we have created, in many instances, potentially fatal liabilities. We are a nation that certainly needs, in the short run, to be adapting to climate change and mitigating ecological decline. But in the long run, coping and adjusting can only get us so far. As Hawken emphasized, “If we citizens cannot name the goal, there is little chance it will be achieved.”

And let’s face it. We’re not even doing an adequate job of coping, let alone reversing climate change. Ten days before the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, President Donald Trump signed an executive order, to eliminate the Obama-era rule that asked the Environmental Protection Agency to account for climate change projections when reviewing projects for stormwater permits. But even if we were not walking back our commitments, the thinking behind lessening impacts is sadly a stop-gap measure and a low mark to hit. Weather forecasting and improved mass evacuation procedures are commendable, but when they are touted as worthy reasons to call the battles with Harvey and Irma victories, it seems wrongheaded at best.

Disasters can come in sudden events, but the underlying causes are usually incremental and gradual. Take Montpelier’s historic and potential future flooding, for instance. Over the past century, Montpelier has grown from having a minimal amount of non-porous surfaces, mainly from roof tops, to nearly full impervious coverage with a combination of rooftops, roads and sidewalks. Plus, 60 percent of the land area in downtown Montpelier is paved and reserved for parking cars. With growing persistence, the vulnerability of the city to severe flooding is increasing due to ecological damage and climate changes. As a city with five waterways, three of them significant rivers — the Dog, the North Branch and the Winooski — Montpelier needs to manage an 8-inch increase of annual precipitation compared to 1950. Since the founding of the city, the annual precipitation in Vermont has increased by more than 27 percent. And that’s not counting this summer’s record-breaking rainfall with its dramatic increases in “significant” one-day precipitation events. Throughout the last century, the rivers in Montpelier have been straightened, channeled, dammed and used as an emergency sewer system. These incremental changes are collectively a sure-fire recipe for disaster.

The encouraging news is that there is a movement afoot to redevelop Montpelier’s downtown in ways that could bring more of the beneficial services of ecosystems back into the city. In Hawken’s new book, “Drawdown,” there are 15 top sources for reversing climate change. They include, among others, wind, solar, afforestation, regenerating soil and reducing waste. Most of these winning sources were proposed by the five finalists of the Sustainable Montpelier 2030 Design Competition entries last year.

Imagine mimicking natural systems in ecological redevelopment strategies — such as building artificial wetlands to create and strategically place more absorbable surfaces that retain, hold, clean and redirect rainfall, as well as rooftop solar and solar farms, wind turbines and biomass production, a pedestriancentered, composting community — all in the capital city. Redevelopment from the core of the city to its surroundings with ecological and climate-reversing strategies could prove to make all the difference in the future health of the capital city, the region and beyond. We can raise the bar and reach a higher goal than mitigation and adaptation. We need to reverse ecological decline and climate change. We can take back the planet, one city at a time.

Elizabeth Courtney is an author and environmental consultant, former chairwoman of the Environmental Board and former executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council.