After walk, climate activists intensify calls for action

MONTPELIER — At the conclusion of the five-day, 65-mile Next Steps Climate Solutions walk last Tuesday, Ashley Bolger and Clarissa Sprague visited Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson in her Statehouse office and begged her to take action on climate change.
Speaker Johnson told them it was great to work in a state where people “really, really care” about the issue.
“I talk to other speakers of other states that are, you know, not even saying the words ‘climate change’ in their chamber because of the denial that’s going on out there,” she said.
But it was precisely because those words seem to have inspired so little consideration (to say nothing of legislative action) from Johnson that Bolger and Sprague had come.
Since the speaker’s Jan. 9 remarks opening the current legislative session, in which she insisted “we cannot ignore the opportunity to make progress on an issue that will have lasting impact on generations to come,” the words “climate change” have never once appeared in her office’s posted press releases.
On March 15, when 150 Vermont students marched to the Statehouse as part of a worldwide Climate Strike, many of them left with the impression that climate change was not a high priority for Johnson or her fellow Democrats, according to the Montpelier-Barre Times-Argus.
Author and climate activist Bill McKibben summed up some of the frustration in an April 9 press release issued by 350Vermont, which organized the Next Steps walk.
“People shouldn’t have to walk all the way across Vermont to get action on climate,” he said. “But if even the Democrats’ leaders have chosen not to make climate a priority, we have no other choice but to march.”
And march they did — from Middlebury to Montpelier, where on the final day more than 300 climate justice activists filled the Statehouse lobby.
How many walked for how long and when doesn’t even begin to tell the total story, however.
“They are only the visible tip of the iceberg,” wrote Next Steps chronicler Marisa Keller a day after the Statehouse action, pointing to the elaborate support network that made the Climate Solutions walk possible.
An even larger part of that iceberg consists of conversations and actions that are happening throughout the world, whether it’s the work of 16-year-old Swedish climate justice activist Greta Thunberg, the disruptive actions of groups like Extinction Rebellion, or the everyday nitty-gritty of concerned citizens providing testimony in the Legislature.
On the same day activists entered Montpelier, Bristol attorney Jim Dumont, was offering his testimony.
“I am providing this testimony as a citizen because I believe we must do everything we can to minimize climate change, and because Vermont could do a much better job than it is now doing to address this crisis,” he told the House Committee on Energy and Technology.
Dumont’s hour-long testimony included, among other things, comments on three bills currently under consideration in the Statehouse:
•H.51, which would ban the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure in Vermont, is too narrowly drafted, he told the committee. Broadening some of the definitions in the bill would both make it more effective and help it survive a federal court challenge.
•H.175, prohibiting the use of eminent domain to take land for fossil fuel transportation or energy production facilities, “is a narrowly focused bill that would have a major beneficial impact,” he said. “This bill seems unlikely to be struck down in court.”
•H.214 would in part require the Public Utilities Commission to expand its assessments of greenhouse gas impacts to include the leakage of methane, aka natural gas, which McKibben notes in his new book, “Falter,” “traps heat in the atmosphere about eighty times more efficiently than carbon dioxide.”
“This is a very significant improvement,” Dumont said.
The evening before, while Next Steps walkers were completing the 19-mile leg from Richmond to Middlesex, Middlebury College hosted a panel discussion on the ethical and psychological dimensions of climate change. Guests included McKibben, British philosopher and former politician Rupert Read and climate scientist (and lead coauthor of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report) Kim Cobb (click here to read that story).
And the evening before that, on April 7, while walkers made their way from Hinesburg to Richmond, Vermont Digger published an op-ed by 350Vermont’s extreme energy field organizer, Julie Macuga, and State Representative Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, recounting a recent meeting with Vermont Gas Systems CEO Don Rendall.
According to Macuga and Cordes, Rendall expressed regret about the way Vermont Gas had used eminent domain to build the Addison Natural Gas Project.
“I view (eminent domain) as something we should avoid as best we can whenever we can,” he told them.
But when they asked him if VGS supported H.175, which Cordes introduced and which would make eminent domain impossible to even consider, Rendall told them he “would have to think about it.”
Cordes said to him, “I want to be able to tell my grandchildren and your grandchildren that we did everything that we could to stop harmful greenhouse gasses from ruining their future; do you feel the same way that I do?” and Macuga followed with “Do you think promoting fossil fuels is a way to do that?”
In response, Rendall spoke about his company’s “responsibility to its customers,” according to the op-ed.
When Next Steps marchers reached Montpelier in the rain on Tuesday, Cordes was standing outside to welcome them.
“I thought it was very powerful,” she later told the Independent. “Somber. Heartbreaking. And very telling about the time we’re living in, where community members and youth are literally begging me and other elected leaders to move much more quickly to address the climate crisis.”
Marketing by Vermont Gas and other fossil fuel companies has successfully distracted from the most important issues, she said, which include:
•Building a truly renewable energy infrastructure.
•Reducing energy needs through conservation.
•Acknowledging the fossil fuel extraction process is devastating already marginalized communities, especially those of historically oppressed indigenous peoples.
To Bolger, 21, and Sprague, 20, and their fellow youth activists, Cordes had this to say:
“Keep going. There’s a large number of us adults who are listening and who are doing everything we can inside the Statehouse and through other organizations — and we agree with you. But you have to be persistent. You have to keep pushing. You have to keep going.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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