Opinion: Climate action would help all
Listening to Gov. Phil Scott on Vermont Public Radio recently as he mounted objection after objection to proposals to combat climate change, I kept thinking, “He’s missing something!”
For every proposed climate solution suggested to him by callers and the moderator, his answer was, “This will hurt rural and working Vermonters.” Of course, this would be a legitimate concern if it were true, but it isn’t.
What the governor is missing is that the current system is inequitable. Low-income and rural Vermonters already have much higher energy burdens than do their wealthier and more urban friends and family in Chittenden County. What the governor is missing is that substantive climate action offers the opportunity to address this inequity through a just transition to the low-carbon future.
In Scott’s simplistic reading of the climate solutions being offered by legislators and a concerned public, all he can see are barriers for the Vermonters he is trying to protect. In fact, all of these solutions contain strong protections for those very Vermonters. In a just transition, every Vermonter is brought along and is assisted to make the changes needed to lower our state’s carbon footprint and save money to boot.
Let’s look at three examples.
What would a just transition look like in the transportation sector?
The governor is currently mulling whether to support a regional proposal called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). This is a “cap and invest” system that would charge fossil fuel companies for the pollution they cause, then use the proceeds to invest in cleaner transportation options for Vermonters.
Scott’s fear is that requiring fossil fuel companies to pay for the pollution they cause would unfairly disadvantage Vermonters who have to drive long distances for work and may not have access to public transportation. But the governor is looking only at the “cap” part of the equation and forgetting the “invest” side.
With funds generated from the sale of pollution allowances, the TCI will generate the resources to improve transportation choices for rural, urban and suburban communities. This might mean helping residents to upgrade to a vehicle that gets better gas mileage, or to invest in an electric vehicle, saving the driver money on fuel purchases. Investments could also be used to provide more public transportation options and make it easier for rural Vermonters to get where they need to go.
Some of these incentives could be income-based, but some could be available to every Vermonter, making it easier for the entire state to reduce our use of carbon-based fuels.
And Scott is ignoring that rural Vermonters have the most to gain from the TCI. A recent study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that rural Vermonters who drive electric vehicles save $870 a year compared to a gasoline-powered car — that’s almost twice the savings Chittenden residents would see!
What would a just transition look like for the home energy sector?
A good program already exists to help lower income Vermonters weatherize their homes. The Weatherization Assistance Program has been extremely successful because it provides free efficiency upgrades to Vermonters who qualify due to income, disability, age and other factors. The result is homes that require less heating fuel, at the same time reducing the need for the fuel assistance program (LIHEAP) for Vermonters whose incomes make it a challenge to heat their homes.
The good news is that the Weatherization Assistance Program works. The bad news is that it is underfunded and the number of homes being weatherized each year has fallen 13% since Scott was elected.
The waiting list for this program is a year or longer, depending on how much money is in the fund at any time. If we are to speed up the just transition in the housing sector, we need to find a much more generous funding source to help Vermonters weatherize their homes. In addition, we should also increase rebates to help moderate-income Vermonters weatherize their homes. Every Vermonter deserves to have a warm home and one that uses less carbon-based fuel. A modest tax on home heating fuels would help to increase funding for current income-sensitive weatherization programs.
Providing more funding for Efficiency Vermont is another way to further a just transition. Many Vermonters would like to invest in efficient appliances, solar panels, heat pumps and electric vehicles. Efficiency Vermont could be working with Vermonters of all incomes to switch to low carbon energy if more robust rebates were available.
Along the way, these proposals would provide well-paid jobs for workers in the fields of weatherization, solar installation, and more. Providing good jobs in the new, low-carbon future is an important part of the just transition movement.
My suggestion to Scott as he carefully and honestly evaluates the Transportation and Climate Initiative and the Climate Solutions Caucus platform is to ask himself these questions:
• “Will this proposal lead to a just transition for rural and working Vermonters?”
• “Is it structured to help moderate income Vermonters?”
• “Will it give all Vermonters a chance to participate in the low-carbon future?”
If the answer is yes, he can support the legislation enthusiastically and be a real leader in the struggle to protect our state’s people, our eco-systems and our economy. I urge him to do so.
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