Focusing in the Face of Climate Change

This bridge over the howe brook in hancock, vermont, replaced an undersized culvert. with support from high meadows, the quintown collaborative,  including five towns along the upper white river and led by the white river partnership , helped develop this project to increase flood resilience.

This bridge over the howe brook in hancock, vermont, replaced an undersized culvert. with support from high meadows, the quintown collaborative, including five towns along the upper white river and led by the white river partnership, helped develop this project to increase flood resilience.

Over the past week, I’ve spent an unusual amount of time with the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which the US government published in November. Unusual, because reports like this one typically don’t address the consequences of climate change in such plainly economic, social, and human terms. The Fourth National Climate Assessment also looks specifically at the different regions of the country— I’ve spent most of my time reading Chapter 18, about the Northeast. With all of this, it’s impossible for me to read the report and not reflect on the mission of the High Meadows Fund in the face of climate change.  

While the Northeast’s coastal cities may focus on rising oceans, the report identified Vermont’s biggest challenge to be the pressure of climate change on rural industries and livelihoods. The report tells us, “[The] natural landscape provides the economic and cultural foundation for many rural communities, which are largely supported by a diverse range of agricultural, tourism, and natural resource-dependent industries.”

That natural landscape, the foundation for Vermont’s communities, is changing. Reading through the Northeast chapter, I kept track of the many different ways our state’s farms and forests are at risk:  

1.       Shifting seasonality negatively affects the health of our forests and wildlife. Less snow and warmer winters impacts our winter recreation industry, threatens access and ability for logging and managing forests, encourages invasive species, and exacerbates the loss of charismatic wildlife that drive tourism.

2.       Higher precipitation and temperatures in the region will adversely impact our farming and water quality. Excessive precipitation can lead to crop loss, more erosion, and more agricultural runoff. Warmer waters and stream flow changes will threaten cold water fisheries and other aquatic species.

3.       More intense precipitation impacts our rural villages and towns where we historically concentrated people, infrastructure and agriculture. There is little redundancy in our road systems and infrastructure, leaving our communities especially vulnerable and with limited ability to cope when the large storms hit inlands and cause intense flooding.

With these changes and threats coming at Vermont from so many directions, where should High Meadows focus its time and money? Does our work match the urgency of the Fourth National Climate Assessment?

Here are a few places where we’ve focused in 2018: Through our initiative to build resilience in Vermont’s watersheds, communities are working with their upstream and downstream neighbors to prepare for the impacts of future storms. We launched a round of grantmaking to address forest health and integrity, where organizations are applying the Vermont Conservation Design framework towards building Vermont forests’ long-term capacity for self-renewal. Our board and staff has also been thinking critically, and listening to thought leaders in our state, about the future of Vermont agriculture.

Reading the report, I realized how important it is we keep at this work. There are many transformational forces at work in Vermont. Climate change is one of them. As we enter the new year, we’ll continue to focus on adapting to these real threats. But my time with the report has reminded me that it’s also important to pause and imagine the future—specifically, a future where Vermont’s natural landscape, and thus Vermont’s economies and communities, are different than they are today.