by Kevin Joseph Ryan
One of the features of Governor Peter Shumlin’s regular stump speech this political season is the need to subsidize renewable energy, which passed the Democratic controlled Vermont Legislature last year in the form of the Vermont Energy Act of 2012 (S.214), which among other provisions, imposed a goal that by 2032, Vermont must produce 75% of its energy needs from renewable sources. While certainly a laudable effort to keep Vermont’s environment clean and green, this would result in increased costs for electricity. According to an open letter from Associated Industries of Vermont and Greater Burlington Industrial Association, among others, Vermonters’ costs for electricity run 30%-40% higher than those of other states, prompting concerns of severe economic damage to the state with such goals imposed.
Shumlin has a different take on pushing renewable energy. “In a state where together collectively since I’ve been Governor, we’ve had four major climate change induced storms, the biggest blizzard ever recorded, a year ago March, I know Win Smith [of Sugarbush Ski Resort] wanted that, but the rest of us weren’t so thrilled….The floods of April, the floods of May, and Irene in August.” The Governor has said that most state leaders will not discuss climate change, but he will, adding, “Twelve inches of rain fell in Bondville, Vermont, in six hours…it didn’t used to happen that way, folks.” He made these comments recently to supporters at a fundraiser at Burlington’s Union Station, underscoring the damage he believes is caused by climate change and how he intends to reverse course by supporting renewable power growth.
The only problem with blaming the terrible impact of Hurricane Irene or recent snowstorms on global warming or a changing climate is that the Governor is wrong. Given that Bill McKibben, the Middlebury based environmental journalist wrote last August that “Irene has got a middle name, and it’s global warming,” one can see how Shumlin reached that conclusion, but it may behoove the Governor to be more careful who he listens to on such subjects. The theory put forth by McKibben, and presumably supported by Shumlin, is that because ocean waters have risen 1 to 3 degrees, hurricanes and other severe weather will occur more frequently in the Green Mountains unless something is done.
However, the National Hurricane Center in Miami counters that no single storm like Irene can be pinned on climate change and while atmospheric science Professor Kerry Emmanuel of Massachusetts Institute of Technology was quoted at the time of the storm that he would be hesitant to make any correlation between Irene and global warming. So the Shumlin theory goes, since the Earth and sea are getting warmer, we will get and are getting more storms of increasing severity. A look to the historical record shows this simply isn’t the case.
Hurricane Irene was a devastating storm for Vermont, of this, there can be no doubt. The storm itself killed 49 people in eight days and had peak winds of 120 mph. Despite being downgraded to a tropical storm with lower than 60 mph winds by the time it reached the Vermont border, it took the lives of six people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Was it the worst storm in the region’s history? Not even close. In 2005, Tropical Storm Tammy didn’t have much of an impact on Vermont, but Southern New England was devastated. Keene, New Hampshire in particular received 18 inches of rain from that storm. Hurricane Bob, in August 1991 caused Southern New England over $2.5 billion dollars in damage and killed 15. All the way back in 1950, Hurricane Dog, while not making landfall, became the largest storm in North Atlantic history, with winds over 185 mph…and then there was the Great Storm of 1938, which killed nearly 700 people across New England with what would be four billion dollars damage in 2012 terms. The point being, large deadly storms have always been with us and to claim that is a recent phenomenon, well, is misinformed.
As nearly every Vermonter knows, nearly every spring, Vermont floods. Irene produced terrible floods, with Killington cut off from road travel and Route 4 nearly washed out, but it wasn’t like 1927. Long before global warming was a twinkle in Bill McKibben’s eye, Vermont flooded from Newport to Bennington with 85 people dead and 9000 homes destroyed. That November flood, from a simple rainstorm, washed out over 1200 bridges. The lawn of the Montpelier Statehouse was flooded in over five feet of water and iron locomotives were overturned.
As for the snowstorms, well, that’s an ancient Vermont tradition. We got away pretty good last year, with only small amounts of snow most of the season, but the year before, March 6-7, 2011, Burlington got socked with 25 inches of snowfall and the year before that, January 2010 bought us the Burlington record of 33.1 inches of the white stuff.. That wasn’t global warming, either. We know that because on January 13-14 1934, Burlington saw 24.7 inches of snow and November 25, 1900 the city got 20 inches.
None of this even compares to the 19th Century. On April 1, 1807 (no joke), Lunenburg, Vermont had a dumping of 52 inches, Danville got 60 inches, and Montpelier got 48 inches. In 1842, Vermont had a snow storm with an average accumulation of 10 inches of snow. Problem was, it was on June 11.
What does all this add up to? Well, there’s an old saying, “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Snow, wind, rains and floods have been with us a long time, before factories, before automobiles and before coal-fired plants. Sometimes, they can be incredibly impactful and horrific, especially in Vermont and New England. The reason nobody ever did anything about it, is because like death and taxes, massive weather is a sure thing here and there isn’t much you can do.
Peter Shumlin would like to be Governor for another two years after the November 6 elections. He’d like to let Vermonters know he knows how to tame the winds and the rains themselves. The Governor of Vermont is a powerful position. Changing the weather might be a bit beyond even that job description.