Climate in the spotlight at legislative breakfast

WEYBRIDGE — While more than 200 hearty climate-change activists on Monday morning were battling rain, hail and wind during the final leg of their symbolic walk from Middlebury to the Statehouse in Montpelier, a much smaller group of citizens was meeting with local lawmakers in Weybridge to lobby for legislation aimed at reducing the state’s carbon footprint.
The proposed legislation includes bills H.439 and S.171, both of which call for a bump in fossil fuel taxes to bolster Vermont’s home weatherization programs. Supporters argue weatherizing more Vermont structures will result in less demand for fossil fuels and therefore reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
The House recently passed H.439, authored by the House Ways & Means Committee, calling for a 2-cent increase in the fuel tax to raise an additional $4.5 million for weatherization assistance and furnace replacement for low-income homeowners and renters.
Meanwhile, the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee — chaired by Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven — is considering S.171, which would bump the per-gallon tax on heating oil, propane, kerosene and other dyed diesel fuel from the current 2 cents to 4 cents. The bill also calls for a gross receipts tax of 1.5 percent (up from 0.75 percent) on the retail sale of natural gas and coal. Receipts would be deposited in the Home Weatherization Assistance Fund, available to homeowners and businesses to defray the costs of home weatherization and investments in alternative heating systems.
Bray calls S.171 the “weatherization for all” bill, because it provides resources for both low- and moderate-income families to fortify their homes against the cold.
The current waiting list for weatherization assistance — based on resources available and the number of eligible homeowners — is around 50 years, according to Bray.
“You save money in an entirely predictable and reliable way, you deliver an environmental benefit across the board to everyone in the state, and you deliver public health benefits to the people in the weatherized home and the public at large,” he said. “It’s a win-win-win program, however you parse it.”
Both H.439 and S.171 are earning support in the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, but face an uncertain future if they make it to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk. Scott has been candid in his opposition to new fees and taxes.
Participants at Monday’s breakfast at the Weybridge Congregational Church urged strong, decisive action against global warming, including phasing out fossil fuels in favor of wind, solar and hydro energy. They acknowledged the transition to renewables can’t happen overnight, but argued smaller initiatives — including banning single-use plastic bags and beefing up the state’s home weatherization program — can provide incremental results without spending a ton of money.
“I think it’s one small thing legislators can do this year, and they could do a whole lot more,” Weybridge resident Fran Putnam said.
She alluded to the 60-mile Next Steps Climate Solutions walk, which included several students from Ripton’s North Branch School. The students’ studies have touched on global warming and a psychological bi-product of that issue: “Ecoanxiety.”
Teachers are encouraging their students to turn their ecoanxiety into action, and many adults are also taking that advice — including Putnam. While a pair of achy feet precluded her from participating in the Climate Solutions walk, Putnam and her husband, Spence, have both immersed themselves in local, statewide and national efforts to reduce global warming.
“(Ecoanxiety) is my new word for myself,” Fran Putnam said. “I’m suggesting that our legislators and maybe our governor get a little more ecoanxiety so these students have a little less, so we can all sleep a little better at night.”
Lawmakers are trying to whittle away at the problem, through greater subsidies for weatherization and a proposed statewide ban on single-use plastic bags used for store purchases. Middlebury last month passed a resolution advocating for a local plastic bags ban.
Bray said the proposed bump in the fuel tax for weatherization is projected to cost each Vermont taxpayer around $15 a year.
“Low-income advocates came to the committee and said, ‘Please go ahead and do this; yes, that’s $15 a year from people who are already facing tough budgets, but we know how cost-effective the program is and we want you to pick up the pace because we have thousands of people who’ve been served and tens of thousands more who could use service,’” Bray said.
He noted program beneficiaries see an average savings of $600 in fuel costs during their first year of weatherization.
“The sooner people get service, the sooner they’re going to be able to save and the sooner we’ll all be better with climate change,” Bray said of the program, which also trains people to perform the weatherization work at $19 per hour.
“From the outset, it’s been a job development and training program, as well as delivering the weatherization program,” Bray said. “They go hand in hand. It develops a workforce.”
Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, is among fans of the program.
“These are pretty decent paying jobs, providing skills to people that we’re going to need for years to come,” Conlon said. “I think it really can be described as a win-win-win, in terms of job development, economic development and climate change.”
Addison Resident Mark Boivin said he believes Vermont should make its biggest climate-change investments in high-impact programs like weatherization, while putting the brakes on efforts like electric cars.
He also advocated for self-help YouTube videos on weatherization upgrades, rather than building a “bureaucracy” and training program for that line of work.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, said he, too, supports weatherization programs, but believes the funding should be spent with specially trained workers. He said the House didn’t make such an assurance, and that’s why he voted against it.
“If we’re going to have state money going into a program, it ought to be well-defined and we need to have a good definition of how (the money) is going to be used,” he said.
Dan Monger of New Haven asked lawmakers if they’d done any studies to show how Vermont’s carbon-emissions reduction efforts might offset the global warming in developing nations like China, India and Brazil.
Smith replied the Legislature hadn’t done such a study, whereupon Bray said Vermont shouldn’t wait for other states and nations to join the climate change fight.
“To me, it’s a question I would answer from a stewardship basis — I think Vermont should do the best it can for itself, always,” Bray said. “Whether we’re going to tip the scale on any kind of global question or not, is really to me irrelevant. We should step up and do the best we can for ourselves to live as good stewards.”
He urged Gov. Scott to take a lead in the climate change battle. Bray believes major initiatives tend to make more progress when championed by the state’s chief executive, citing as an example former Gov. Madeleine Kunin’s advocacy for health insurance for all Vermont children — eventually achieved through the Dr. Dynasaur program.
“(The Legislature) is good at implementing, but not as good at leading,” Bray said.
Meanwhile, the global warming problem continues to get worse, participants at Monday’s breakfast said.
“We need to completely change the conversation,” Sam Guarnaccia of Middlebury said. “There is a complete emergency on planet Earth right now … The devil is not in the details, it’s in the systems that keep us trapped in these conversations about ‘incremental change.’”
Shoreham resident Barb Wilson called the climate change problem “a crisis,” one that she said all legislators — regardless of party — should take on aggressively.
“In order to survive as a planet, we need to move forward,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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