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Reporter debrief: Vermont's new climate assessment finds the state is warming faster than previously thought. What does that mean?

Mt. Mansfield's summit with a path through light snow, against a very blue sky.
Elodie Reed
A new report details just how much Vermont could change -- and already has -- if global emissions are not curbed.

Climate change has made Vermont significantly warmer and wetter over the last century, faster than regional scientists previously expected, especially during the winters. That's according to the second Vermont Climate Assessment, released yesterday by researchers at the Gund Institute and The Nature Conservancy.

Vermont is also warming faster than the global average. According to the report, the trend is expected to continue along with more frequent droughts and floods. But the report also found there's still time to curb emissions and the associated climate impacts.

VPR's Liam Elder-Connors spoke with VPR climate and environment reporter Abagael Giles about key findings from the new report. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Liam Elder-Connors: So this new report covers a lot of ground, what are the big things people should take away from it?

Abagael Giles: Climate change is happening faster in Vermont than was previously thought. Vermont is, on average, almost 2 degrees F warmer than it was in 1900. And winters have warmed almost 2.5 times faster than that in the last 60 years.

So, remember waiting for the bus when it was like -15 degrees F out? We now see about 7 fewer nights like that each year than when our parents were kids.

Vermont also sees on average 21% more precipitation than it did in 1900.

Ice out is happening earlier and earlier every decade.

And Vermont's climate is already warming faster than the global average. That's expected to continue. By the end of the century. If we do nothing about emissions, we're talking 10 to 16 degrees F warmer here on average. And even if the world cuts emissions, we're looking at probably 8 degrees F of warming.

Alright, so it's safe to say Vermont will see a significant change in its climate, even under the best scenario. How is that going to affect the state's major industries?

Well, let's look at skiing. Skiing is a $1.6 billion industry in Vermont. It brings millions of tourists here every year. And under a high emissions scenario, by 2080, the downhill ski season will shorten by one month, making it largely not economically viable.

But we can change that. If we cut emissions, most ski areas will survive through this century, the report finds. And there's a business opportunity there as well: ski conditions here are expected to fare better than in other New England states.

Looking at agriculture, our growing season has already gotten longer. And that sounds like a good thing. But there's been some bad news for apples and fruits that need cold winters.

We're going to see more boom or bust cycles of drought and intense rain in the future. Irrigation will definitely be a bigger part of farming here.

So Abagael, you were describing more of how climate change could change things for us — for the humans who are living here in Vermont. But what about other animals that live in the state?

Yeah, it's bad news for some really iconic species.

Overall, the report finds that 92 bird species, including the loon and hermit thrush, are expected to disappear in the next 25 years.

We're going to see more white tailed deer and less moose. And we're also going to see more cyanobacteria blooms.

And if you're wondering about ticks, we will be seeing more ticks and more tick borne diseases.

How does this report compare with the first climate assessment, which was done in 2014?

That's a great question. The last one really focused on impacts from wetness. It looked at more precipitation and more floods. This one really hones in on variability as a key theme.

So in the future, the report forecasts more warming and more wet weather, with greater variability. That means more periods of intense rain and more periods of prolonged drought.

This new report also finds Vermont's climate is supposed to remain, you know, relatively attractive compared with lots of other places. But temperatures and precipitation have increased faster than previous models thought they would. So in other words, faster than the 2014 assessment predicted — which was the first of its kind for a state.

And finally, last year, Vermont committed to reducing greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, with even bigger reductions to follow. The state's Climate Council is working under a Dec. 1 deadline to come up with a plan for how we're going to do that. What do the findings of this report mean for that process?

Researchers actually called this out as one example of an opportunity to do something. And there are things that we can do. For example, Vermonters drive more miles per capita than anyone else in the northeast. Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont, and heating is a close second. The council right now is in the thick of making decisions about how to change this.

But it's worth noting, these global emissions reduction scenarios called out in the climate assessment? Vermont can't change them alone. We need international and national policy changes to get there.

And it's important to point out people of color, Indigenous people, kids, older Vermonters, people of lower socioeconomic status, they disproportionately bear the impacts of climate change. Not everyone has the same resources to adapt to climate change or to buy into solutions. It's not a choice for everyone to move or relocate. And this report acknowledges that.

And right now, some environmental justice advocates are calling for the Climate Action Plan process to slow down. So we have time to make sure that the people first affected by climate change, who don't often get to participate in public discussions about it, get to weigh in.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles@AbagaelGiles.

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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