Greg Dennis: On climate, bringing butter to a knife fight
If you want to know why the Vermont Legislature did such a miserable job of addressing climate change this year, look no further than the leadership.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said climate change was not even among the top five priorities for her Democratic caucus.
Senate leader Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, responded to a delegation of over 300 climate activists who marched to the Statehouse, by offering a figurative a slap in the face: He immediately opposed a small increase in the heating oil tax to pay for more weatherization of Vermont homes.
And Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s “no new taxes for nuthin” approach continues to starve the state of meaningful money to act on climate.
The fish, in the words of the old Greek saying, rots from the head.
Progress was slowed by the stupid squabbling between House and Senate over minimum wage and paid family leave. But the problem goes much deeper than that.
As Julie Macuga of 350Vermont.org puts it, “There seems to be a disparity in how much legislators say they care about the climate crisis, and what they’re actually willing to do.”
What’s at stake? The recent U.N. scientific panel says we need to begin lowering the world’s overall carbon emissions next year. “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet,” said General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés.
How will we explain it to our grandchildren if we don’t all do what we can, where we can?
Yet this year’s legislative session made precious little progress. Essential conservation efforts to weatherize low-income housing will help only 800 more households. Support for electric vehicles got half the minimum that climate groups were seeking. A bill to stop new climate-busting gas pipelines didn’t even make it out of committee.
Here are excepts from responses I got when I asked various local and state leaders why the Legislature had done so little on climate:
At 350Vermont, Macuga said, “Our focus was on bills to ban the construction of any large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure and ban the use of eminent domain to build pipelines. We also need to make sure that lobbyists like MMR LLC, which lobbies for Vermont Gas and ExxonMobil, are held accountable for their greenwashing and false promises that we don’t have to transition away from fossil fuels.”
Rights & Democracy also pushed hard this session. “There’s no doubt legislative leadership should have done more to prioritize bold action to address climate change and should be expected to do more in 2020,” said James Haslam, the group’s founder and executive director. “Given that scientists now overwhelmingly agree that the very life support systems on the planet are being destroyed, Vermont must do everything we can to lead the way for change in our economy and public policies.”
Added Haslam: “A broad range of Vermont organizations, including many led by youth, are preparing to present proposals for next January for a ‘Green Mountain New Deal,’ and there will be a major push to get real action next year.”
Paul Burns, the head of VPIRG, told me: “When it comes to the climate crisis, policymakers aren’t acting fast enough. Gov. Scott says, ‘We’re doing what we can in terms of climate change.’ But that’s just not true. Vermont is failing to meet its goals for reducing climate pollution and the problem is getting worse.
“Our house is on fire,” Burns said, “And while we’re glad to see the incremental progress made on electric vehicles and weatherization, we need to be honest about the fact that these steps amount to throwing a bucket of water on an inferno.
“One opportunity would be to follow up on the independent analysis of various climate policies that the state paid $120,000 for last year,” Burns pointed out. “The study came back in January showing that climate action would strengthen the economy, put money into the pockets of low- and moderate-income Vermonters, and reduce pollution. But the Legislature took no action.”
Said Robb Kidd of the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club: “Climate solutions got the short end of the legislative cycle … But we did see the introduction of the Global Warming Solutions Act, which proposes to develop an accountability framework to ensure Vermont is meeting its statutory carbon reductions. We also saw a significant rise in climate activism to support bold climate legislation next year to jumpstart the push for 100 percent clean and renewable energy.”
Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council, mentioned “budget increases in investments for working lands enterprises and downtown and village redevelopment.” VNRC also did a nice job highlighting climate in regular dispatches from Montpelier this session.
WHAT LEGISLATORS SAY
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, and House Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury, noted some progress on advanced wood heat, utility oversight and making state government buildings more efficient.
The Joint Fiscal Office claims the new budget figure for climate-related projects is over $167 million. But that evaluation counts pretty much anything vaguely green. Moreover, it pales in comparison to the $6.1 billion total budget.
In fairness, Scheu points out, “The state has a lot of obligations it must pay for each year (education financing, pensions, debt service, state employee compensation, etc.) which leaves less than we’d like for other critical needs.”
I was struck by this perspective from Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury:
“As a legislator who ran for office to work on climate, I want people to understand that how we relate to the land is what must change. Solving the climate crisis will require changing how and where we live, do business, grow our food, produce energy, recreate, use limited resources and where we dispose of them when we are finished.
“There’s much work to do and room for all of us to do it, and no time for blame,” Sheldon asserts. “Speaker Johnson’s goal of having every committee in the legislature work to address climate change is right on. Successful political change happens when specific goals are identified and shared by stakeholders at all levels. This takes time and focused effort.
“In the case of climate change, it will require all of us to change just about everything we do.”
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gredennis.wordpress.com. Email” [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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