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Column: Vt. climate efforts must preserve biodiversity

To the Valley News
Published: 10/7/2021 10:10:05 PM
Modified: 10/7/2021 10:10:11 PM

We are witnessing a stunning global loss of biodiversity that some are calling the Sixth Great Extinction. The United Nations estimates that 1 million species are now at risk. U.N. scientists describe consequences that vary from loss of food security to increasingly frequent pandemics to collapsing economies and loss of cultural heritage.

Human-caused habitat degradation and pollution are at the root of this crisis. Climate change is an accelerant, forcing countless species to try to find new homes by climbing to higher ground or moving toward the poles. But in too many cases, human activity has degraded migration corridors and potential migration destinations, leaving species with nowhere to go.

Vermonters might like to see themselves as leaders in environmental matters. But it is Florida, and not Vermont, that is showing leadership in safeguarding biodiversity by creating “a national model for how to safeguard threatened species for generations.”

Where would we start if we wanted to help combat the loss of biodiversity here in Vermont? The international Staying Connected Initiative has identified critical wildlife linkages that connect the Adirondacks to the Canadian Maritimes. Six of the 10 linkages include land in Vermont.

It is a painful irony that Vermont has encouraged some of this essential habitat to be fragmented and whittled away under the pretext of climate action. Consider Green Mountain Power’s industrial wind turbine complex in Lowell. It has permanently degraded vital Staying Connected habitat. In exchange, the project’s promoters promised us that it would avoid 74,000 tons of CO2 emissions each year — the amount of carbon produced by New York City in less than half a day. Our wildlife habitat is irreplaceable and far too valuable to be squandered this way.

Protecting the Staying Connected linkages is the bare minimum we should aspire to. The Half-Earth Project, inspired by renowned biologist E.O. Wilson, would have us go further by “working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.”

A serious effort in Vermont to stem the loss of biodiversity might start with protecting those forests that our own Agency of Natural Resources has designated as “highest priority.” These include core blocks of forest habitat and the connectivity blocks that tie them together.

In 2020, the Vermont Legislature enacted the Global Warming Solutions Act, which created the 23-person Vermont Climate Council. The council, along with dozens of contractors, state employees and subcommittee appointees, is now developing a Climate Action Plan that is intended to promote climate adaptation, enhance our resilience to climate impacts, and mitigate climate change (by reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases).

Many members of the council are expressing concerns that the Global Warming Solutions Act was written in a way that does not empower them to safeguard biodiversity, preserve our natural resource heritage or honor cultural priorities. That’s because the act’s only hard targets relate to emissions reduction. In the words of one Climate Council subcommittee member, emissions reduction is the bottom line; everything else is just placed on a wish list.

At a recent meeting of the Vermont House Energy and Technology Committee, Chair Tim Briglin, of Thetford Center, acknowledged that Vermont cannot affect how warm the planet gets. He went on to suggest that more should be done to prepare Vermont communities for the things we can affect.

Briglin is right. We Vermonters have little influence over atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. But we have a tremendous amount of influence over land use practices. It is time to use that influence to ensure the survival of the species that depend upon Vermont’s wildlife habitat and its connection to habitat beyond our borders.

Some of these practices can serve double-duty by helping to mitigate climate change. According to the U.N., changing our land practices alone could deliver 30% of the emissions reductions that we need to achieve the goals of the Paris agreement on climate action by 2030. It is likely that most Vermonters would embrace these practices enthusiastically, but under our new climate law, their beneficial effects would not even count.

Please join me in urging our legislators to update and improve the Global Warming Solutions Act so we can:

■ Give the Climate Council the flexibility to create a plan that does not sacrifice adaptation and resilience benefits in order to serve the single bottom line of emissions reduction.

■ Find a way to count the benefits of the U.N.’s nature-based solutions to help us mitigate climate change in environmentally smart ways.

■ Stem the loss of biodiversity by protecting our highest-priority forest blocks from being degraded in the name of climate action — because nothing is more important than safeguarding the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.

Mark Whitworth, of East Burke, Vt., is president of Energize Vermont.

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