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‘We’re not only facing a problem, we’re facing an opportunity’

Can global climate change provide an economic stimulus for rural towns in Vermont? Paul Costello thinks it can.

This interview is adapted from the Jan. 24 broadcast of Green Mountain Mornings on WKVT-AM and is published with the station’s permission. Host Olga Peters was for many years the senior reporter at The Commons. The show airs daily from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. To hear audio of the show on demand, visit the show’s Soundcloud page at soundcloud.com/wkvtradio.

BRATTLEBORO—One reason Paul Costello and I talked recently is that his nonprofit — the Vermont Council on Rural Development — is working with communities on a new economic-development initiative: climate change.

For the past several years, VCRD’s Climate Economy Initiative has proceeded, according to its website, “with the premise that confronting climate change through innovative economic development can be a competitive strategy, one that will build national reputation, create jobs, and attract youth and entrepreneurism.”

Costello, who lives in Montpelier, has worked extensively with local communities on a number of issues — as with Vernon on its post-Vermont Yankee economy.

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Olga Peters: Let’s talk about the council’s work around climate change.

Paul Costello: We are a very experienced community facilitator. We’ve worked over the past 20 years with about 100 towns and cities across Vermont where we bring people together and ask them, “What do we stand for? What are the big ideas we have? What are the assets of our communities? How do we engage together in community and economic development? What are the kinds of projects we could do?”

And we bring sort of SWAT teams of federal, state, and nonprofit business leaders from all across the state to small towns or cities to think with people about what can help them move forward. For us, it’s all about local leadership, it’s all about decisions made by local communities.

Over time, we’ve seen that there are terrific opportunities in Vermont around downtown redevelopment, around the working landscape, around the climate economy.

And for each of these kinds of areas, we’ve built statewide top-level policy councils to determine the policies that can support communities as they try to do this work going forward.

O.P.: It seems to me that the council is hoping to facilitate more resiliency in communities that face issues around climate change.

P.C.: That’s true. Resiliency is important. You think about what Wilmington and other communities throughout Vermont went through with Tropical Storm Irene. We need to have the foresight to be prepared for the exigencies of weather changes.

But we often get into thinking that we just react to climate change as a fundamental problem or as a moral issue. We also need to think about the way our economy works.

Economies change historically to answer problems. Businesses form and creative [people] develop enterprises to respond to challenges and to fill public needs.

So you think about the climate issue nationally, internationally. There’s huge competition economically in India, in China, in Silicon Valley, in Cambridge, Mass. to be innovative leaders in developing new energy sources, smart grids, battery-storage structures, efficient utilities and appliances, electric vehicles, driverless vehicles — the whole nine yards of innovation that is coming.

Based on our work with communities, we’re really interested in asking: How does Vermont capture market share? How do we attract young innovators in this sector? How do we know if we’re already way ahead with green building, like the work that happens in Windham County?

Because of the creative work that’s gone on in energy development, we have more clean-energy jobs per capita than anywhere else in the country. We have really creative utilities, really creative efficiency programs, a really smart grid structure already.

We’re way ahead of a lot of rural America, and we’d like to ask: How do we attract young businesses? How do we help our own kids develop young businesses around this whole sector, from transportation-systems change to agriculture to carbon sequestration?

Because we’re not only facing a problem, we’re facing an opportunity for the reinvention of a clean-energy economy, and people who lead and places that lead are going to prosper.

You look at the rural economic challenge we have — this would be the opposite side of the coin. Can we be flexible, can we lead, can we be creative enough to seize the opportunity?

O.P.: So let’s back up and touch base on what are some of the challenges that climate change is bringing to Vermont. What are some of the problems that this new economy is working to solve?

P.C.: The biggest problem is carbon and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We’re seeing storm surges already and in every place as close as Boston and New York. Globally, we’re seeing sea levels rise already. The last four years on average were the warmest four years in human history. We’re seeing a trajectory that’s extremely dangerous. It’s already affecting the ski industry, it’s affecting outdoor tourism, it’s affecting the maple industry. And some of those effects are things we’re already adapting to.

But the pressures on other places in the world are much more severe — in places like North Africa, Bangladesh, and Florida, which could see some devastating sea-level rise.

You know there’s going to be significant economic dislocation. It can lead to strife, it can lead to problems with migration, and it’s just a huge issue.

So for Vermont, it’s not so much a direct, physical, short-term impact as it is a long-term, sort of, how-do-we-do-our part-in-reducing-carbon.

And in doing so, can we be inventors, can we help to build solutions? I think about companies like Beta Technologies, which is at the Burlington airport. They’re inventing electric helicopters and electric planes, and they’re talking about flying an electric plane across the country, which has never been done before. As aerial vehicles change to electric, wouldn’t it be great to capture some part of that market?

We’re that level of innovation.

It sounds boggling, but this stuff is going to be done somewhere. And when you think about the assets and creativity of Vermont’s towns, why not here? Why not make Vermont one of the centers that’s innovating in this arena?

O.P.: The council has put out kind of a platform to look at different aspects of addressing climate change, from weatherization to seed funding to changes of codes and regulations. What are some things that communities are doing?

P.C.: As a policy facilitator, we put out a plan based on pulling together some people who are smarter than us and are leaders in this arena statewide, including Alex Wilson of Building Green.

So we see towns that are already looking at value-added agricultural development. They’re all looking at how to improve water quality. And they’re looking at the junction between those things and energy generation on farm sequestration patterns. And even in the governor’s budget address in January, he asked whether we could be capturing phosphates, extracting them from manures, and actually selling them — whether we could make it into a business proposition that would be cleaning water at the same time it removes these substances. Can we be exporting some of those phosphates and making money?

So when we go to communities, we often see them forming agricultural networks, as they have in Cabot or Hardwick.

We see towns that are looking at smart growth in downtowns that are wrestling with public transportation and ride sharing and making sure that the most vulnerable people can get a ride to the hospital or a doctor’s appointment.

We see towns that are looking at efficiencies and how they can expand them. A number of towns that we’ve worked with have started energy committees. We don’t come in with that agenda to help them do that, but towns have picked this up.

Over time, through our community visits, we’ve seen this conjunction of activity that comes from local folks who want to build their communities and do so in a way that’s both sustainable and economical.

Like the whole movement around having business incubators — that’s an example of smart growth in a downtown, where entrepreneurial space lets small and new businesses grow and hopefully expand to support the next generation of economic progress for that town.

All that stuff adds up to a sense that Vermont is actually doing a lot of this innovation right now, and we should be championing it and talking about its success.

We have working-lands jobs growing, we have energy jobs growing, and we’ve got a great storyline for Vermont, where we can compete in a larger market to capture the imagination of creative young people. And that means our own kids, too.

We ask: How do we work together to move this stuff forward in ways that make it more affordable and more successful for the community as a whole?

And, you know — it’s a lot of fun. We tend to be an organization that isn’t involved in the politics of division. We try to build unity and help people set common direction.

O.P.: When you work with all these communities and you kind of find these common goals, are you also finding common challenges or common regulations that maybe need to be addressed?

P.C.: Well, I’m not sure it’s the regulatory issue so much as it is international capitalism and its changes. You know, we’re working right now with Newport. We’ve worked with Brighton and Island Pond recently. We work with towns that used to have a mill at the center of town, a strong forest-products industry. Or towns that used to have tool and die like White River Junction and Springfield — places where the historic foundations of the economy in manufacturing have suffered in international global competition.

Commodity products have left those towns and have gone to places that produce the goods at the lowest possible cost, that pay the least, and that have the least environmental restrictions.

Our forest-products industry is in competition with Chinese labor working with wood from the Russian steppe, with a whole different set of structures for compensation and environmental regulation. And we’re not going to go backwards on these things, so we have to look at the creative edge.

So, when we think about rural communities, we see that we’ve got strong economic challenges, town to town. We have some very successful communities, but we also have towns that are languishing economically — and that languishing also connects to demographics.

Young people aren’t attracted to places where there’s not dynamic energy innovation, lots of hope, an atmosphere of progress, a sense that you’re going to be with a cohort of other creative young people doing cool things.

Almost every small town in Vermont is asking the question: How do we situate ourselves as a place where young people want to be and where new businesses will want to come?

So many towns in Vermont over the past couple of years have built economic development committees. If towns don’t have a group that’s working on this topic, they might want to think about creating one. We need to build a sustainable foundation for the future of these communities, and no one from outside can do it for you.

So we see this as sort of a fundamental economic challenge. In some towns, it’s hard to find the energy. You know it’s hard to pull together the right leadership to step up and to set that kind of direction. We want to better support local leadership in addressing economic development challenges in the future.

It’s just a fundamental question in terms of how democracy works and how we rally together to get things done. Towns that do rally together, that set objectives together, that get citizens involved and engaged in moving forward? They build momentum, and we try to help towns around the state do that.

Towns that don’t do that — they tend to become more passive and flatter and convey an atmosphere of not making progress. And people who are visiting or people who are looking for a place to live — they feel that.

Some people want a very quiet place, but a lot of people — especially young people — want to feel part of a community on the move. There is no magic recipe for success in doing that, but it’s asking questions and bringing people together. It’s not trying to do what everyone else is doing but thinking about the fundamental assets of your community and ways that you could be working together to move forward.

So being involved in that process is very inspiring. It’s all about democracy. It’s about civility and listening to one another. And it’s about building the momentum.

We can win when we work together at our best — like real Vermont — and we love being part of that.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #445 (Wednesday, February 7, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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