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Protesters give legislators an F for climate work

MONTPELIER — Two Middlebury College students and a Montpelier high school student were arraigned in Washington Superior Court late last week on charges stemming from their participation in  a Statehouse protest imploring lawmakers to take action on climate change.
On May 16, about a dozen members of the group Extinction Rebellion Vermont staged a nonviolent protest in the House Chamber — unfurling banners from the balcony, issuing calls for climate justice legislation and showering lawmakers with 3,000 brightly colored index cards that were printed with messages like “Planet Over Profit,” “This Is an Emergency” and “See You in January.”
Carmen Richardson-Skinder, 15, a freshman at Montpelier High School; her older brother Asa Richardson-Skinder, 18, a freshman at Middlebury College; and Alec Fleischer, 21, a Middlebury College junior, were arrested after disobeying orders to leave the chamber.
“Vermont refuses to significantly mitigate fossil fuel consumption, acting as if our actions have no impact,” they wrote last week in a VT Digger op-ed about their experiences. “Instead of treating climate as an enemy directly harming Vermonters, we are failing to meet our mild emissions goals, and our Democratic Party still fails to include climate change in its top five priorities.”
In October 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report warning that “rapid and far-reaching” reductions in carbon emissions must be achieved by 2030 in order to avoid setting Earth on a course toward irreversible climate catastrophe.
Extinction Rebellion, which goes by XR, uses nonviolent resistance to protest against ecological collapse and the risk of human extinction. The group officially launched in the United Kingdom not long after the IPCC report was issued. XR, which has rapidly gone global, has three aims:
•Governments must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
•Governments must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
•A national citizens’ assembly must be created to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for that purpose.
“Earth is in danger of crossing planetary climate tipping points from which humanity will not recover,” wrote XR Vermont in a May 16 press release. “Business as usual, as demonstrated by the Vermont legislature in this session, can no longer be tolerated if humanity wishes to avoid catastrophe. Today’s action put Vermont lawmakers on notice that Extinction Rebellion and its many climate justice partners throughout the state will be back in January, and in much greater numbers, to ensure a livable planet is at the top of their priority list.”
LAWMAKERS REACT
Almost as soon as XR began its protest, Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, ordered lawmakers to leave the chamber. Three representatives defied her and remained to express solidarity with protestors.
Rep. Brian Cina, P-Burlington, was one of them.
“The disturbance and mess that these young activists made today doesn’t even begin to compare with the disturbance and mess that we are leaving for future generations,” Cina later wrote on his Facebook page.
Not all lawmakers welcomed XR’s disruption, however.
“I thought it was a shameful use of their time,” Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, told the Independent. “We are the people’s house and people can say what they want, but there are procedures. There are plenty of ways to interact with legislators and committees that don’t present a safety hazard.”
Smith suggested that the legislature was doing the best it could to “do the right things for climate change,” citing recent bills funding weatherization and banning single-use plastic bags, both of which he supported, he said.
House members had been expecting XR’s visit, said Rep. Terry Norris, I-Shoreham.
“I respect their right to do this but it was a disruption to the business we are here to do,” Norris told the Independent. “Honestly I don’t think it had any influence on any person here, if that was their goal.”
While he didn’t necessarily support their tactics, Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, sympathized with the protestors’ concerns.
“I appreciate the urgency that these folks feel about global warming,” he said. “Sadly, Vermont alone can’t really do much, though we should. The real focus needs to be on our federal government, which is doing too little to address this crisis.”
Fleischer finds this sort of thinking frustrating, he said. In response, he quoted former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: 
“A state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”
“Effectively,” Fleischer explained, “I want Vermont, little Vermont with its relatively small carbon footprint, to act as a laboratory for other states. You know, if Vermont acts boldly on climate change and justice, and the renewables sector and employment dramatically increase, if we had a clean Lake Champlain — what would New Hampshire do? What would New York do?”
Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, stands with the activists, she said.
“Nonviolent direct action creates tension and discomfort,” she said in a statement. “It’s designed to. It’s designed to break up the status quo to bring awareness to a crisis, and to pressure power holders. This is what the protesters in the Statehouse did. The climate crisis is worthy of a little bit of disruption to help move us to act to decrease the immense disruption coming our way, and indeed the immense climate disruption already happening.”
XR’s protest was only the latest in a series of actions organized by climate justice groups this year. Since the first day of the 2019 legislative session, activists have reached out to the legislature in every way they could think of, said Maeve McBride, director of 350 Vermont.
Advocates and activists have staged or attended more than a half dozen events during the 2019 legislative session in an effort to get their message across (see sidebar below).
“That doesn’t include the advocacy work that these and many other groups are doing day in and day out,” McBride said. “And it’s not just this legislative session. It’s been years of inaction.”
NO LETTING UP
The Richardson-Skinders and Fleischer were arraigned on May 23 and will likely be required to do community service, they said.
Neither they nor their allies have any intention of letting up, however.
“See you in January” refers, in part, to a Green New Deal for Vermont, which will be introduced at the beginning of next year’s legislative session.
They also reiterated their commitment to nonviolent protest.
“We never want to scare anyone,” Fleischer said. “We just want them to actually do something. You know, after you’ve testified and protested and lobbied a dozen times, what are you supposed to do? I think if you read any American history book, you’ll see that this is how you step up your activism.”
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].
Climate-related activism in Montpelier this year
•On Jan. 9, 350Vermont and the Vermont Youth Lobby held press conferences at the Statehouse calling on lawmakers to enact bans on fossil fuels and to institute a carbon tax.
•On Feb. 14, members of Mother Up! delivered valentines to legislators encouraging them to “love the planet” and “enact legislation.”
•On March 5, Town Meeting Day, 16 more Vermont Towns (bringing the total to 55) passed non-binding resolutions calling for an end to construction of fossil fuel infrastructure, a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and a fair and equitable transition to those standards.
•On March 15, hundreds of students left school and descended on the Statehouse as part of a worldwide climate strike aimed at raising awareness of the looming climate crisis.
•On April 9, at the conclusion of the five-day, 65-mile Next Steps Climate Solutions walk, more than 300 people visited the Statehouse to encourage lawmakers to work with more urgency toward such bills as H.51 (banning further fossil fuel infrastructure), H.176 (prohibiting the use of eminent domain for fossil-fuel projects) and H.214, which would in part require the Public Utilities Commission to expand its assessments of greenhouse gas impacts to include the leakage of methane.
•On April 23, more than 130 people attended a public hearing on various climate-related bills, including H.51, H.176 and H.214.
•On May 1, the Vermont Youth Lobby and other groups staged a Rally for the Planet at the Statehouse.
•On May 16, Extinction Rebellion interrupted proceedings of the House of Representatives.
 
As of press time, H.51, H.176 and H.214 were still in committee.

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