02.22.16

Vermont Climate Economy Summit: Ideas to Action Remarks Senator Patrick Leahy

Thank you Judge Sessions for that kind introduction. You are an extraordinary public servant, and we’re grateful to have your leadership on the Vermont Climate Change Economy Council.

We come together today at a turning point in time.  Over the next two decades, the economy of Vermont, the United States and every country on Earth will be transformed.  How we guide and react to that transformation will affect generations to come.  It is not an overstatement to say that the future of our world hangs in the balance.

Every week the global population grows by two and one half times Vermont’s own population.  With such a staggering rate of growth, how then can Vermonters make a difference globally?  What changes can we make, what opportunities can we seize to help address our global climate challenges, without compromising our standing in the regional, national, and global marketplaces?  The Vermont Climate Change Economy Council is answering those questions by leading, showing how we can make climate action an engine that drives our economy forward.  Here in Vermont we are choosing not just to follow change, but to help lead it, and to shape it. 

For many people, including a good number of national leaders, the challenge of addressing climate change seems so daunting that they hide in denial that the problem even exists.  Some simply deny, and some others see this as unwinnable – unchangeable – and they resist moving forward. 

Fortunately there are many, like those of us here today, who see this challenge as a generational opportunity, inspiring us to work together to push our economy and communities forward in new, meaningful and rewarding directions.  

We need to remember how quickly actions can take hold and move us in positive – or negative –directions.  Our history is defined by those milestones, where we joined together to take on big problems. 

 

Of course, failure to act can also set us down the wrong path, with very bad results.  I am reminded of my trip two years ago to Shanghai, where the stories and pictures of a skyline polluted by smog became very real to me. 

 

It was chilling to see tens of thousands of residents going about their day in surgical masks and, in some cases, gas masks.  Parents were afraid to take their children outdoors.  I think of my own children, growing up here in Vermont, and of my grandchildren and the joy they have here in Vermont, especially in the summers. 

 

Imagine going to your child’s favorite playground, or to your favorite lake or fishing hole, your surgical mask next to your bottle of sunscreen.  The smog-filled photographs that I took on that trip look otherworldly.  And air quality in Beijing is even worse.  Yes, our climate is changing, and yes, we are contributing to it.

 

What shocked me the most, I think, was how quickly the damage had been done.  Marcelle and I had visited China before, where we saw clear blue skies.  Not two decades later, so-called “progress” multiplied the number of coal-fired power plants, expanded dirty manufacturing, and converted a sea of bicycle commuters into streets jammed with cars and trucks.  China’s economy may be racing forward, but the health of its residents is falling far behind. 

 

If we have had such a profound negative impact on the environment, we can also have a profound positive affect, and very quickly, on the drivers of climate change.  To do so, we must not only do things differently, we must think differently.  We must make the climate a core priority around which we organize and drive forward economic decisions that can affect all of humanity.

On Capitol Hill I am constantly struck by how so many leaders are afraid or too stubborn to confront this challenge.  The periods of greatest growth and prosperity in the United States have each been achieved when we have worked together to build and deploy the tools needed to solve big problems.  Like climate change. 

 

Time and again, Vermont assumes a leadership role in these pivotal debates.  Vermonters come together, identify solutions, and become real leaders in showing the rest of the country how it can be done -- thoughtfully, and with real results.  We have a unique ability here in Vermont to organize ourselves and take action towards common goals.  Thanks to our size, our flexibility, and our Vermont values, we can provide a rural model for response to the climate challenge, and we can nurture and attract entrepreneurism needed for our economy.

The work you are all doing here today, and every day, will help to retain and attract successful, mission-oriented entrepreneurs, investors, creators, and thought leaders to participate in Vermont’s model for economic renewal in this climate change era.

 

We already have a strong core to build upon.  I am amazed and energized every day by Vermont innovators who are thinking creatively and already leading nationally and internationally.  The Vermont businesses, nonprofits and educational institutions represented in this room are already tackling big problems and finding solutions to climate risk, solutions that are being readied to be deployed in Vermont and exported around the world.

 

Here at Vermont Technical College, we have a state-of-the-art bio-digester producing electricity, heat, and cow bedding from farm waste.  But the most important output of this small unit is knowledge:  It is a research tool and classroom for a new generation of farm managers, solid waste experts and renewable energy technicians. 

 

An hour-and-a-half up the road in St. Albans Bay, Green Mountain Power is working to take their Cow Power model to the next level with a large multi-farm bio-digester.  They will support our working landscape with Vermont-grown power, while working to clean up Lake Champlain.  This is another cutting-edge project, generating jobs and knowledge while generating energy.  

 

These projects, and so many others like them across the state, do require capital and investments.  Climate change is a national problem and the federal government has an important role to play. 

 

I was pleased to have Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in Vermont last month to announce an exciting, first-of-its-kind-in-the-nation low interest loan guarantee for renewable energy and efficiency work.  This $46 million in federal support coming to the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation and Vermont’s innovative Efficiency Vermont utility was made possible because of the work by State officials, by VEIC, and with our full Vermont congressional delegation pushing as well. 

 

I am also proud that the Department of Energy at my request funded the research digester on this campus.

This is just the sort of shared vision and collaborative work through which Vermont will lead the way, growing our economy towards a stable climate and a better world.

 

There is one question we all need to ask ourselves:  Will we be able to look our grandchildren in the eye and tell them that we not only acknowledged the reality of climate change, but we did everything we could to reverse its effects and end its escalation?  The work you do today will help us offer the answer they deserve to hear.

 

Someone once said that productive brainstorming should be like sitting on a pin:  It should make you jump up and do something.

 

I’m not surprised by the interest and passion in this room.  We are, after all, Vermonters.  And I know that Vermont can help to lead the way with better growth for a better economy and a better world.  We will leave this and future brainstorming sessions with the imagination, the energy and the commitment to jump up and get it done.  Thank you for all you do.  I’m grateful to be with you today, and I’m all the more optimistic and enthusiastic about Vermont’s future.

 

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