30th in a series
On paper, it looks like Vermont has done a lot to fight climate change.
There is more money in the state budget for clean energy programs. The state has a climate action plan. There are new guidelines for “environmental justice” and the Global Warming Solutions Act commits the state to meeting climate goals or dealing with tough litigation.
Will next month’s election bring new hope to Vermont’s climate movement or more challenges? It’s too early to tell, but we can make educated guesses.
There will be a lot of turnover during the new legislative session; of Vermont House’s 150 members, 43 are not running for election.
Chris Pearson and Sarah Copeland Hanzas, chairs of the House Climate Caucus who were so instrumental in getting the Climate Action Plan approved, left the building. Becca Balint’s leadership in the Vermont Senate will be missed as she runs for the United States House.
One huge factor will remain: the governor’s skepticism of climate action.
Whatever you think of Governor Phil Scott — and many Vermonters like him — political habits die hard even in the face of the climate crisis, and Vermonters love their Republican governors. So many Democrats voted for Scott in 2020, apparently delusional that he was not an anti-vaxxer, that he took nearly 70% of the vote from David Zuckerman, a popular lieutenant governor. Despite the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, Scott appears to be tied for re-election this fall to a fourth term against Brenda Siegel, his savvy but largely unknown Democratic opponent.
A key question for 2023: Can lawmakers pass clean heat and renewable energy standards, and overcome Scott’s uncompromising opposition to restrictions on fossil fuel companies?
The heat standard has nearly surpassed Scott’s all-too-typical veto this year. In fact, overriding the veto failed only when a member of the House who originally voted for the bill recanted. Representative Thomas Bock of Chester, a Democrat, had the dubious distinction of being for before being against.
The Renewable Energy Standard would set the amount of renewable energy that utilities must include in their portfolios. One of the concerns of state environmental groups is what constitutes “renewable”. 350 Vermont has been particularly adamant in its warning against greenwashing through the false claim that gas is renewable when it is just the same old poison in a new bottle.
Can these organizations find common ground and enough votes to overcome a Governor No veto? It won’t be easy.
On a related issue, the Green Mountain State could be a leader in permanently setting aside forests to sequester carbon emissions, a critical step in the Climate Action Plan. But Scott also vetoed H.606, a bill that would have set conservation goals of 30% of Vermont’s land by 2030 and 50% by 2050.
Moreover, there is still a lot of short-sighted NIMBY sentiment when it comes to siting solar projects. And as the energy masters among us will point out, there are challenges with the existing electrical grid that make it more difficult to add and use more green energy.
It’s not all bad news, however.
New federal infrastructure and “cutting inflation” laws will inject millions into Vermont’s climate and resilience projects.
Newly appointed state treasurer Mike Pieciak says he wants to explore the possibility of the state divesting itself of risky investments in fossil fuel companies. If Vermont divests, it would join the state of Maine, stacks of public money held by New York and California, and other funds worth trillions, all of which have pledged to withdraw their money from companies that profit fossil fuels.
Locally, Republican Rep. Harvey Smith’s retirement pits an opponent of climate action (Republican Jon Christiano) against an advocate for doing more for the climate (Democrat Jubilee McGill). The newly redesigned Addison-5 district now encompasses part of Middlebury, in addition to Weybridge, much of New Haven and Bridport.
It’s also easy to find many local efforts to tackle the climate crisis. ACORN energy and food cooperatives have been working on this for years. The Climate Economy Action Center (CEAC) has drafted a climate action plan for Addison County, based on a substantial study that identified our largest local emitters of greenhouse gases.
The CEAC also organized two climate roundtables which brought together more than 20 local organizations acting to combat climate change in housing, transport, domestic heating and waste treatment.
The Pollinator Pathways effort, along with the “WindowDresser” projects in Bristol and Middlebury, show the appeal of hands-on volunteer work. And no matter what happens at the state level, these grassroots, citizen-led efforts will continue.
Greg Dennis is a writer, Cornwall resident and lifelong environmental activist.