Panel calls for lawmakers and constituents to tackle problems together and remember the vulnerable
Vermont state Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale calls herself a former climate migrant, someone who changed living spaces to avoid climate change’s worst effects. She grew up in Los Angeles, where here India-born father, wary of poor air quality, wanted to move his family closer to the coast and cleaner sea air.
Climate migrants and the global warming-fueled climate crisis dominated the opening panel of the May 20 Resilient Vermont Conference, presented by Norwich University’s Center for Global Resilience and Security in Mack Hall. Panelists were Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany; Energy Action Network Executive Director Jared Duval; Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore and Ram Hinsdale.
“The last report effectively said, ‘This is our last warning,’” Jared Duval, executive director, Energy Action Network
Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, and the panel told the audience, which included some summer students, faculty members and local residents, that time to agitate for change is shortening as climate damage lurches forward.
Ram Hinsdale said she started lobbying for cleaner air when she was in high school and saw her father’s fears realized. Economics forced her family to move inland, toward smog, which a 2019 study linked to accelerated lung damage development, even in nonsmokers.
To fight pollution, Ram Hinsdale zeroed in on perchloroethylene, an air pollutant used in dry cleaning. She built relationships with Korean Americans, who once dominated ownership of the city’s dry cleaning businesses, warning them of the chemical’s dangers.
Trying to legislate the pollutant out without these talks would have proved politically and morally disastrous, Ram Hinsdale suggested.
Political disconnection from lack of communication showed locally after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, she said. The storm dropped 11 inches of rain on Vermont, at rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour in parts of the state, causing widespread flooding. In Northfield, 25 feet of water flooded Northfield’s wastewater treatment plant, knocking it out.
Ram Hinsdale recalled getting frantic phone calls from non-English speakers and trailer park residents desperate for aid as their homes near the Winooski River flooded.
“I was just so struck,” she said. “I thought, ‘We lacked the community resiliency and the focus on those most impacted and to address what is coming if we have a true disaster.’ … It was really up to the goodwill of a lot people in a lot of communities. And goodwill goes to where people are.”
Duval, citing the August 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and perhaps appealing to ecology-focused Norwich students, said time is running out to slow climate danger. The report, which United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called “a code red for humanity,” warned that global warming-linked sea level rises are already irreversible.
“The last report effectively said, ‘This is our last warning,’” Duval said. “We have less than a decade to cut greenhouse emissions in half if we are to avoid the worst impacts of a destabilized climate.”
Ram Hinsdale and the panelists expressed some hope. Moore said Vermonters can focus on mitigating flood vulnerability, ensuring ecological connectivity and creating a state climate office to execute the Vermont Climate Action Plan and the state Global Warming Solutions Act.
Some progress has already come, Moore said. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency this year updated a screening tool to better identify communities that face disproportionate environmental burdens, such Vermonters in flood zones. Ram Hindsale also said she hoped Vermont Gov. Phil Scott would sign an environmental justice bill she’s advocated.
However, Ram Hinsdale said, these measures won’t matter much if lawmakers neglect the most vulnerable.
“I still think we see justice and equity as an afterthought,” she said. “If we wait until the most comfortable feel the impacts of climate change, it will be too late.”
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