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'Bringing It All Back Home': How Vermont Can Lead on Localizing the Climate Fight

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Environment and Climate Resource Center page.

It is a great and signal honor for me to be here at my second-favorite legislative body on the planet. You are actually a match for the Ripton Town Meeting in wisdom, civility, and earnest effort, falling short only in the selection of baked goods. I look forward to the first Tuesday in March for many reasons, but the most important are probably these particular maple cream cookies that my neighbor Barry King always bakes; since our great mutual friend Willem Jewett is now your Majority Leader, perhaps he can bring some up some time, because that's really all you're missing.

I'd like to thank Speaker Smith for this invitation, and also for his clarion call to this great assembly to make climate change a priority; I know he will meet with a good reception, because just a quick glance around the chamber reveals some of the country's most devoted environmental legislators. Tony Klein, Margaret Cheney-and from your sister body the Senate I want to take a moment to salute Ginny Lyon for her hard work over the years. Of course Governor Shumlin has been a leader on this issue throughout his career, in both legislative and executive capacities-and also as an outstanding communicator. His straightforward declaration, from the first morning of our trauma with Irene, that it was an effect of climate change is a model of the way we need our leaders to talk about the world we find ourselves in.

It is that world I want to address today. I know that you all know about climate change, but I want to take just a couple of minutes to bring you up to date scientifically. I wrote the first book for a general audience about what we then called the greenhouse effect, way back in 1989. At that time, few anticipated how rapidly the crisis would advance. So far human beings have raised the planet's temperature about a degree Celsius-a quarter century ago few scientists predicted the effects of that relatively small increase. But the earth turned out to be very finely balanced. The extra solar energy trapped by carbon in the atmosphere-less than three quarters of a watt per square meter of the earth's surface-has already done very large things. This past summer, for instance, saw the catastrophic melt of the Arctic ice sheet-there's now, by area, half the ice that Neil Armstrong saw when he looked down from the moon.

We have, in other words, taken one of the largest physical features on earth and broken it, and others are close behind. The chemistry of the earth's oceans, for instance, is now changing as seawater absorbs carbon from the atmosphere-it is now 30% more acidic than it was four decades ago, a dangerous development for the marine food chain upon which all of us ultimately depend. For those of us who dwell on land, however, the most conspicuous changes have to do with hydrology, the way that water moves around the planet. If you want one physical fact to explain this century, it's that warm air holds more water vapor than cold: the atmosphere is about five percent warmer than it was 40 years ago, a staggering shift that more than anything else signals that we've left behind the Holocene, the 10,000-year period of benign climate that underwrote the rise of human civilization. That increase in atmospheric moisture also loads the dice for both drought and flood-for the kind of extremes we're seeing more and more commonly on this planet. The scientists have long linked extreme weather to our new heat, but for the last few years they've been joined by the part of our economy that we ask to analyze risk. Here's how Munich Re, the world's largest insurance company, put it in its annual report for 2010, the hottest year ever recorded. Globally globally, loss-related floods have more than tripled since 1980, and windstorm natural catastrophes more than doubled, with particularly heavy losses from Atlantic hurricanes. This rise cannot be explained without global warming.
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