Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Commemorating Earth Day

Last Friday marked the 46th annual Earth Day, and we cannot ignore that we are at a crossroads in time. Human-caused climate change is accelerating with each passing year, and is now taking a severe toll on our planet. We see it in our scorched farmlands and burnt forests in the West, and in the flood ravaged river valleys and super-storm battered coastlines in the East. Climate change is not a hoax and we must act now to protect our future and our future generations.

Earth Day is an opportunity to recognize that climate change is not only the greatest threat to our environment today, but it also poses a threat to public health and to our national and economic security. In coming years, the economy of Vermont, the United States, and every country on Earth will be altered. We must guide that economic transformation to protect future generations.

We are really just beginning to grapple with the serious economic consequences of climate change across the country. In Vermont, we saw the warmest winter on record this year, with mean temperatures five to 10 degrees above normal and snowfall several feet below normal. On Christmas Eve, the mercury hit 68 degrees in the state capital of Montpelier, beating the previous record by 17 degrees. The abnormally high temperatures and lack of snow hurt our ski and tourism industries. Many ski areas saw business down 20 percent, and some saw a drop of as much as 40 percent. This does not just impact the ski areas and the mountains, but also our restaurants, local hotels, contractors, and other businesses that are driven by the ski industry.

Climate change could also impact Vermont’s maple industry, which contributes more than $300 million in sales to Vermont’s economy every year. While 2016 has been a successful year for producing maple syrup, if temperatures continue to rise each year, in the short term we could face reduced sap quality and even a decrease in the amount of sap produced. I am also very concerned that in the long term, our sugar maple stands could be decimated by invasive pests or threatened by drought and forest fires. The agriculture and fisheries sector is highly dependent on specific climate conditions, and maple production will not be the only agricultural industry affected. The Pacific Northwest’s winemakers, Alaska’s salmon fisheries, the Southeast’s peanut producers, and corn growers in the Midwest could all face significant climate-related challenges.

The threats posed by climate change are numerous and can be downright frightening. However, Earth Day – and every day – we must remember that if we can have such a profound negative impact on our environment, we can also have a profound positive affect on the drivers of climate change. If we make climate the top priority around which we organize and refocus economic decisions, we can find solutions to climate risk through creative thinking and innovation. While climate change does represent one of the greatest challenges of our time, we should see it as opportunity to nurture and attract entrepreneurism, rather than dragging our heels or denying that there is a problem.

I am proud that time after time Vermonters continue to come together to identify solutions to big problems. I am amazed and energized every day by Vermont innovators who are thinking creatively, and already leading nationally and internationally. Vermont businesses, nonprofits and educational institutions are already tackling big problems and finding solutions to climate change, solutions that are being readied to be deployed in Vermont and exported around the world. Just last week, I had joined leaders from the University of Vermont to announce a National Science Foundation competitive award of $20 million to Vermont EPSCoR, which will support research of the Lake Champlain Basin and its watersheds to find out what has made some parts of the basin resilient in the face of extreme weather events, while other parts fail to recover and rebound. Work like this on Lake Champlain will give Vermont and other regions new tools to help build resiliency in areas that have been vulnerable in the past.

Recently, I was pleased to hear that not just one, but two, Vermont companies, Green Mountain Power and Vermont Electric Power Company (or VELCO), are finalists for the Edison Electric Institute’s prestigious Edison Award this year for their innovation and contribution to the advancement of the electric industry. Green Mountain Power is working to expand renewable energy production in Vermont and is taking their Cow Power model to the next level with a large multi-farm bio-digester. Meanwhile, VELCO’s Vermont Weather Analytics Center will help to build a more reliable grid as customers, communities, and energy businesses work to prepare for the more severe storms brought by climate change, and will also help garner renewable energy’s full value and potential in the state. These are cutting-edge projects, generating jobs and knowledge while generating energy.

Some people see climate change simply as an environmental issue, but it is about so much more than that. Creating a green energy sector is not just about cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It is about providing jobs for Americans in the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors.  This is about strengthening national security through energy independence. This is about breaking the stranglehold of oil on the transportation system by developing alternative transportation energy sources. Addressing climate change is also about ensuring that our children and grandchildren have clean air to breathe on Earth Day, and every day, for generations to come.

We have come together before, across the aisle and across regions to solve large problems.  We must do so again. We owe it to the planet and to future generations.

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