In our interview last week with former governor Peter Shumlin, he listed a handful of lessons that were learned as a result of Tropical Storm Irene, which devastated Vermont a decade ago last week.
Shumlin said Irene was the moment for Vermont when climate change went from a theory to a reality. The damage, which affected some 225 of Vermont’s 251 towns and cities, caused millions in damage, and forced the state to rethink how it was going to rebuild in order to avoid another infrastructure breakdown when — not if — another Irene-grade storm hit the state.
Shumlin and members of his administration knew it was a pivotal moment in the history of the state, because getting recovery wrong was only going to lead to more problems in the future.
“I believe that (climate change) is the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced,” the Democratic 3-term governor said. “If there is a silver lining, it’s that tragedies are leading to a more livable future. … It gives me hope. I am much more optimistic. Ten years later, that’s progress.”
The dialogue has changed. More people are thinking about their dependence on fossil fuels, and the relevance of renewable energy. More Vermonters are recycling and composting. And due to the global pandemic, there has even been a push toward supporting local food systems and gardening again.
Irene was the first step to the new future.
Neale Lunderville, who was Shumlin’s first Irene Recovery Officer in the first four months after the storm, wrote a commentary that appeared in Perspective last month. In it, Lunderville, who now works for Vermont Gas Systems, wrote, “The severe weather, fires and droughts we’ve experienced in the decade since remind us Irene was not a one-off event. Climate change is real, and the outlook is getting worse. This is confirmed by the recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found ‘human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2,000 years.’ That’s why Vermont Gas Systems is moving forward with a plan — and a new approach — to transform our energy system to lead in the fight against climate change.”
Lunderville worked with Republican governor Jim Douglas in various capacities; then worked for Shumlin on the recovery; and has since also worked with Gov. Phil Scott on the state’s COVID response. Across many years of public service, Lunderville has a long lens from which to view the biggest issues facing Vermont. And for him today, the head of VGS, to be touting the effects of climate change seems surprising.
“When people ask how our state will achieve its clean energy transformation, I find myself thinking of the challenges we’ve faced together. When Tropical Storm Irene struck a decade ago, it took teamwork and ingenuity to clear the rubble and reopen our state,” he wrote. “Through the lens of these disasters, we see a powerful lesson to prevent an even bigger catastrophe. By working arm-in-arm to help neighbors in need, we can achieve real progress and make lasting change for the better.”
This week, President Joe Biden seemed to have his own “aha moment” relative to the state of the nation.
Yesterday, while pledging robust federal help for the Northeastern and Gulf states battered by Hurricane Ida and for Western states beset by wildfires, he sent a similar message: Without change, we can expect more of the same.
“These extreme storms, and the climate crisis, are here,” Biden said in a White House speech. “We must be better prepared. We need to act.”
In turn, the president said he will further press Congress to pass his nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill to improve roads, bridges, the electric grid and sewer systems. The proposal intends to ensure that the vital networks connecting cities and states and the country as a whole can withstand the flooding, whirlwinds and damage caused by increasingly dangerous weather, according to The Associated Press. Biden also stressed that the challenge transcends the politics of a deeply divided nation because of the threats posed by the storms and fires.
“It’s a matter of life and death, and we’re all in this together,” the president said.
Scientists say climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events — such as large tropical storms, and the droughts and heatwaves that create conditions for vast wildfires. U.S. weather officials recently reported that July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded in 142 years of record-keeping. Ida was the fifth-most powerful storm to strike the U.S. when it hit Louisiana on Sunday with maximum winds of 150 mph, likely causing tens of billions of dollars in flood, wind and other damage, including to the electrical grid, the AP noted.
The lessons are real. Our leaders, past and present, see the effects. Now we must set policy, support policy, and execute policy that, as Shumlin emphasized, lead “to a more livable future.”
This editorial first appeared in the Rutland Herald on Sept. 3.