Winterless Wonderland: Help Protect New England’s Winters

Jan 17, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Caption: CLF President John Kassel, Bear, and his brother Peter Kassel, on a New Years hike up Vermont’s Camel’s Hump. (Bear is the one in the middle.) Note the extremely thin snow cover – unusual for the Green Mountains at that time of year.

 

In the mid-1990’s a Vermont ski area executive told me this joke.

“How do you make a small fortune in the ski industry in New England?” he asked.

“Start with a large one.”

He was talking about the challenges he faced then, which seemed normal at the time:  limited water for snowmaking, labor shortages, skyrocketing costs of doing business, aging baby boomer population, and inconsistent (though generally reliable) snowfall. The snow sports industry now faces a much more fundamental challenge: a shrinking winter.

But for a recent cold snap, a light dusting on MLK day, and a destructive storm in October, our winter here in New England has been largely without snow. The temperature has been high – in many instances, far higher than normal.

Consider recent temperature trends as reported by @JustinNOAA – the Twitter feed by NOAA’s Communications Director. On Friday, December 9th, he Tweeted: “NOAA: 971 hi-temp records broken (744) or tied (227) so far this January.” The day before broke “336 hi-temp records in 21 states.”

Rising temperatures are a death knell for falling snow. On the final day of 2011, only 22% of the lower 48 had snow. Today, New England remains largely untouched by snow. A glance at NOAA’s snow depth map shows most of New England with 4 or less inches of snow. This was true of my New Year’s hike with my brother and his dog up Camel’s Hump. As the background of the photo shows, there was little snow across the surrounding Green Mountains.

With so little snow, New England is suffering. While ski mountains have been making snow (and areas like Sugarloaf and Stowe are reporting recent snow fall), other outdoor recreationists are suffering. Some seasons haven’t even started yet, weeks if not months into their normal season.

Snowmobilers, for instance, are facing one hell of a tough time. With so little snow in most of New England, they’ve been prevented from riding over familiar terrain. Ice fishermen, too, are facing lakes and ponds that, by this time of year are usually covered in a thick layer of ice by mid December. Today, many that are usually frozen by now remain open bodies of water.

The effects of this extends beyond our enjoyment to our economy. According to a story on NPR, reported by Maine Public Broadcasting, the unseasonably warm winter has meant millions of dollars in lost revenue for sporting good stores, lodging, and recreation. One store in the story has reported a decline in sales by around 50%.

Competitive cross-country and downhill skiers suffered, too. They’ve have had their race schedule reshuffled due to rain last week. According to the US Ski Team development coach Bryan Fish, quoted in the Boston Globe, “We’ve had the same challenges on the World Cup. It is always a challenge in a sport that relies on the climate.”

That is precisely the problem. People are drawn to New England to live, work and play for its climate: its warm summers, stunning falls and picture perfect winter landscapes, suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities. Walk down the halls of our states offices and you’ll see signs of that passion right here at home: people wearing ski vests, pictures of people snow shoeing, cabins nestled into densely fallen snow. If our climate changes – which the IPCC and others have repeatedly demonstrated it will – then New England will be a very different region than the one we all have come to know and to love.

That’s why I ask you to help us protect our New England winters. Help us protect the places where we enjoy ourselves.

To do just that, I suggest a few things:

1)      Help us transition away from inefficient, 20th century energy to clean energy of the 21st century. As a recent EPA report showed, power plants account for 72% of greenhouse gases – by far the largest contributor to global warming in the U.S. Here at CLF, we’re pushing for a coal free New England by 2020.

2)      Also according to the EPA, transportation accounts for the second largest portion of greenhouse gasses. Ride your bike, walk, or take public transportation to work, to do your errands or your other daily tasks. It makes a big difference.

3)      Support both national and regional or local environmental organizations. As I wrote in a NY Times letter to the editor recently, local environmental organizations “have known for years what the nationals are only now realizing: we’ve got to engage people closer to where they live.” Support local, effective environmental organizations who are creating lasting solutions in your area.

4)      Make yourself heard; write letters to your Senators, Congressmen and Representatives. Ask tough questions, and don’t settle for easy answers.

5)      And be sure to get outside. Plant a garden, even if it’s a small one in a city. Go for a hike, or for a bike ride. And take a friend or family member. Remind yourself and others why we need to protect our environment.

By doing all of these simple but important things, you can help us keep winter, winter.

Time For a New Yardstick?

Jan 4, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Even when the worst of the current worldwide economic crisis ends, the U.S. economy will have fundamentally changed. What will that new economy look like? We may see slower economic growth, with more gradual ups and less precipitous declines. Perhaps fewer hours will be worked on average per year, but with higher productivity per hour. Whatever the changes, we will need to develop a new way of measuring how well our society is doing to supplement – or even replace – gross domestic product.

GDP and similar metrics fail in several ways when used as proxies for more general societal progress. First of all, GDP doesn’t tally many parameters that matter as much or more than production when trying to track the overall health of our society. For example, GDP does not count work without wages by stay-at-home parents. And many things that are tallied are not measured in terms of their true worth.

Damage from Tropical Storm Irene is an all-too-familiar example. Despite the heroic recovery efforts and assistance from the federal government, it is hard to consider the storm as a benefit. But given how spending is measured, GDP will count the recovery efforts as an economic boon to Vermont – in keeping with the tradition that breaking and replacing windows is measured as productivity.

It’s not a new problem. Robert Kennedy spoke to it in 1968 when he pointed out that GDP “counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.”

Kennedy concluded that GDP “measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile … and it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

This doesn’t mean that GDP is useless or false. The mistake is to treat the ups-and-downs of one very limited measurement as a broader signal of how we and our neighbors are doing.

We need a more comprehensive and accurate way of evaluating our progress, especially here in Vermont, where quality of life and environmental health are so fundamental. Many of the factors nearly or completely left out of GDP calculations – including loss of farmland, short commutes, air quality and the health of the whitetail herd – are particularly important to Vermonters. With the help of state government, legislative economists and the state’s university, we could track the measures we consider most relevant.

Some important work in this area has already been undertaken by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont. Ten years ago Gund researchers estimated measures of the Genuine Progress Indicator for Burlington, Chittenden County and Vermont as a whole from 1950 until 2000. All three levels of measurement in Vermont had significantly better GPI per capita since 1980 than the United States overall – and by the year 2000 per capita GPI in the Green Mountains was twice what it was nationally. The main factor was better performance on the environmental measures compared to the national average.

A Vermont GPI is much needed, because it has significant potential as an extremely useful indicator of whether residents are making progress towards the lives they want.

 

This article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and Times Argus on January 1, 2012.

Memo From New England: EPA’s Clean Air Standards Following New England’s Example

Dec 21, 2011 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

There is a saying that as goes Maine, so goes the nation. That is proving to be true, with one slight twist: As goes New England, so goes the nation’s environmental policy.

If you look at a wind map of the United States you’ll see that all prevailing winds east of the Mississippi eventually converge right here, in New England. That helps make New England the place so many of us love – warm summers, stunning falls, and cold, snowy winters – but it also makes New England the tailpipe of the nation.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, researchers began documenting evidence of the effect of acid rain on Camel’s Hump in Vermont’s Green Mountains. They documented dramatic decreases in biomass, forest reproduction, seed germination, and other damaging effects among such species as red spruce, mountain maple, sugar maple, and beech – some of the trees whose brilliant fall colors draw millions of tourists to New England each fall. The cause? Acid rain.

Today, the problem continues, though in different ways. Antiquated coal plants built before 1970 have long enjoyed loopholes in the Clean Air Act that allowed them to emit toxic pollutants without modern controls. They have spewed a mix of mercury, arsenic, lead, and soot that harms all Americans by degrading our air and water quality, as well as our public health by increasing the rates of lung disease and causing asthma attacks, among other ailments. Even though many New England states have imposed modern controls on their plants, winds continue to carry pollution from the rest of the country that harms New England’s environment and its people.

That’s why today’s ruling from the EPA on the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) is so laudable. As my colleague Jonathan Peress said in a press statement, these standards “amount to one of the most significant public health and environmental measures in years.” They are also similar to standards we adopted here in New England years ago.

According to EPA estimates, these standards will prevent 11,000 heart attacks and 130,000 asthma attacks annually among Americans by 2016. The standards will also save at least $59 billion measured as a reduction in premature deaths, lower health care costs, and fewer absences from work or school. That is undoubtedly a good thing. It is also undoubtedly long overdue.

The affected coal plants are toxic dinosaurs. According to an AP survey, the average age of the plants is 51 years – some of them were even built when Harry S Truman was president. EPA’s new standards will finally allow the public health protections, signed into law by George H.W. Bush as a part of the Clean Air Act of 1990, to do their job. As Ilan Levin, associate director of Environmental Integrity Project, said in a piece on Climate Progress, “The only thing more shocking than the large amounts of toxic chemicals released into the air each year … is the fact that these emissions have been allowed for so many years.”

Here in New England, we have long understood the importance of controlling harmful pollution. CLF together with a close coalition pushed for strict state air pollution standards to clean up the dirtiest plants in Massachusetts. In 2001, the Department of Environmental Protection adopted regulations known as “The Filthy Five” that went beyond the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970, and tackled the issues of mercury and carbon dioxide. From our experience with stringent state standards in Massachusetts and Connecticut, we know the substantial benefits to public health and the environment that will result from these rules.

Concern that these standards will directly shut down plants is misguided. According to an AP survey, “not a single plant operator said the EPA rules were solely to blame for a closure.” Instead, a confluence of factors have already initiated a broad technology shift we’re already seeing here in New England: coal prices are rising and natural gas prices are declining against a background of strict state clean air rules. Given this, many (but not all) of New England’s plants have either already installed modern pollution controls, or are actively planning for retirement, in ways that will keep the lights on.

I applaud the EPA, and Administrator Jackson, for their good work on these standards. We will continue to support them, and they’ll need our help.

And in any event, how long are people to suffer while clean air requirements on the books go unenforced? 21 years (since 1990) is too long. The time has come. Finally.