Opinion: Vermont addressing climate change

This week’s column is by Rep. Rebecca Ellis, vice chair of the Vermont House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. She represents Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington and Buel’s Gore.
June 18, Pope Francis issued an urgent plea for countries across the world to address climate change. While Republican presidential hopefuls in the U.S. immediately brushed aside Pope Francis’ call for action, Vermont legislators took bold steps this session to move our heating, transportation and electric sectors away from carbon pollution.
“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” wrote Pope Francis in his papal encyclical. “It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
Vermonters understand the catastrophic damage that severe storms can wreak on housing, businesses and social stability. Tropical Storm Irene was an uncomfortable and expensive wake-up call for anyone who downplays what climate change will look like in the future. In Waterbury, where I live, we saw first-hand how severe storms can ravage both buildings and lives.
Scientists predict that storms like Irene, with heavy rainfall, will become more frequent and destructive.  The question is not whether climate change will happen, but whether we can mitigate against the most damaging effects. Now is not the time for apathy.
Ten years ago, the Vermont Legislature pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. This year, the Legislature continued on that path with the passage of Act 56, a law that will increase the ratio of renewable energy in Vermont retail electric sales from 55 percent in 2017 to 75 percent in 2032, and keep us on the cutting edge of innovation. And just as importantly, it will help us to better control our energy future and keep our electric rates affordable.
With Act 56, Vermont is also the first state to address carbon emissions from the transportation and heating sectors through its renewable portfolio standard. Transportation and heating generate more than two-thirds of Vermont’s carbon emissions. To meet the state’s greenhouse gas goals, Vermonters need to reduce their reliance on fossil fuel in the transportation and heating sectors by moving to more energy-efficient technologies and to less carbon-intense energy sources. 
Going forward, Vermont’s electric utilities will offer an increased number of services and products that reduce fossil-fuel usage and carbon emissions in both the heating and transportation sectors. Customers will be able to design their own carbon-reduction programs, choosing from a variety of options that range from home weatherization to electric vehicles, to air source heat pumps and electric storage batteries. Total energy expenditures, along with carbon emissions, will go down with the adoption of more energy-efficient and clean-energy technologies. 
Even good ideas face opposition. Despite the cost savings and climate benefits of Act 56, House Minority Leader Don Turner sought to amend the bill and remove its cost-saving, innovative, energy transformation program. John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute, arguing against the bill, questioned the link between human activity and climate change. These actions are out of step with what Vermonters know. The Legislature, including many Republicans, understand the urgency of climate change and saw the need for this law, passing Act 56 with strong tri-partisan support.
Vermonters are eager to take action and join in the war against climate change. And, as Vermont’s energy policy has already demonstrated, energy efficiency and carbon reduction are compatible with stable electricity rates and job growth. Burlington Electric Department has not had a rate increase since 2009 and is now 100 percent renewable. Green Mountain Power reduced rates two of the last three years, including a 2.46 percent rate decrease in 2014. Compare that with the rates in the rest of New England, which rose 55 percent in 2013 and another 18 percent in 2014. 
Pope Francis has called on each of us to do our part. Working together, our individual actions can make a difference. Act 56 creates a framework for individual action that will result in strong collective change, change that will benefit Vermont and, ultimately, humanity as a whole.

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