Legislative Review: Three crises, one people and Vermont grit
Vermonters face three crises: The first two are clear and present dangers — first, COVID-19, and second, the need to uphold the safe, lawful, just and stable operation of government in Washington, D.C., and across the nation.
The third crisis is less obvious, yet more challenging and damaging in the long run — climate change.
While history is ordinarily a pattern of events only recognized as significant in retrospect, we need not wait for that perspective to emerge at this moment in our country; we can all feel it now right down to our bones: We are MAKING history every day. None of us are spectators; our actions and our inactions in responding to these three crises are shaping our towns, state and nation for years and even decades to come.
First, the Legislature must and will continue to respond to the COVID-19 emergency in front of us. This is already the first order of business for every legislative committee.
Second, on the same day that the nation’s Capitol was stormed by insurrectionists with the encouragement of the President, the Vermont General Assembly convened quietly, safely and peaceably to swear in members and begin work. I listened to the storming of the Capitol on the radio as I drove home from the Vermont Statehouse. The contrast was shocking.
While the federal government accomplishes a peaceful transition of power and uses its legal tools to bring to accountability those who fomented and carried out these anti-democratic attacks, Vermonters should feel confident that their legislative body is vigilant, stable and on the job.
Third, as time allows, once the Senate Natural Resource and Energy Committee has completed its work responding to COVID, we will then move on to other work, including the long-term emergency of climate change.
Understandably, climate change likely appears less menacing to most of us than COVID and the Washington insurrection. As creatures wired for “fight or flight,” we have difficulty responding to such a slowly advancing danger. For example, everyone knows smoking is, over time, a leading cause of cancer, but still people take up the habit, and others don’t stop even though they “know they should quit.”
The devastating consequences of climate change, however hard to perceive and respond to, cannot be overstated: It wreaks havoc on all living things in the form of extreme storms, droughts and floods, massive wildfires, failed crops, extinctions, damaging invasive species, and the creation of climate refugees. And its costs are felt most keenly by those who can least afford to recover.
Climate change demands a commitment from all of us to become better stewards. The earth, air and water upon which we all depend was not created by any of us; we inherited it. We must not damage these foundations of life before we pass them on to future generations.
Our stewardship challenge is made all the greater because we have created an economy based on burning “cheap” fossil fuels that not only power our economy but also emit toxic pollutants that damage the earth every single day.
There is hope in action. We are not stuck. And we’ve already begun. We must transition to a clean energy economy, the first hallmark of which is efficiency: doing the work we require while using less energy. For example, new LED light bulbs use one-tenth as much electricity as their incandescent predecessors.
Second, the energy we do need, we can generate renewably and cleanly — using wind, water and solar. Vermont has made a good start; at 62% renewable, our electric grid is the cleanest in the United States.
And third, we must transition our cars, trucks, homes and businesses to run on clean renewable electricity through actions such as driving electric vehicles (EVs) and heating weatherized homes with electric heat pumps.
Taken together, these measures save Vermonters money while reducing the pollution that drives climate change. Some Vermont EVs, for example, now “fill up” on the electric equivalent of 62¢ per gallon of gasoline; Vermonters can use such savings, especially right now.
Taking on these three crises requires grit: a determination to do our best, day after day, even when progress is uncertain or hard.
Yes, we are all getting pandemic fatigue. Yet, the virus itself does not tire, so we cannot rest, either. Similarly, keeping our democracy healthy requires, we can now see more plainly than ever, the steady civic participation of every citizen. And climate change, too, demands of us a comparable tenacity and commitment — taking steps steadily in the right direction. There are local energy efficiency programs that can help you reduce your usage today, through small steps (such as light bulbs and window-sealing caulk) or large ones (insulation, heat pumps and EVs).
You will hear that we cannot “afford” to make this transition to clean energy. But affordability does not only mean cutting programs and asking everyone to live on less. Affordability also means making good investments now for future gains. We all know “it takes money to make money.” For climate, “it takes money to save money.”
An investment in home weatherization, for example, reduces average energy costs for owners and renters by 26% per year — for a lifetime, not just one or two years. Right now, we can help make the cost of investing in weatherization so affordable that the energy savings can pay off the loan — and all the while, the occupants enjoy a warmer, more comfortable and healthier home.
Our current modest weatherization programs add approximately $415 million a year to the Vermont economy in jobs, keep another $33 million in the pockets of Vermonters through saving on their energy bills, and boost the state’s GDP by $20 million, according to a study out this past November. This is what savings through investment looks like.
Weatherization is just one program in which investment builds more long-term affordability. Making these investments now, in the midst of all our challenges, requires doing the right thing — the smart thing — even though we are, quite frankly, tired and anxious. But this is not work we must do alone. In fact, we cannot do it alone. Re-engineering our energy systems is a vast challenge beyond the capacity of any one citizen, making it proper for government action.
Abraham Lincoln said, “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves.”
No individual can create the new clean energy economy; we can only do it as a community. And our servant in facilitating this transformation is our government. It too must step up and commit to the thoughtful, long-term work to address the crisis of climate change.
Three crises, one people, and Vermont grit. Let’s keep working. Together.
Editor’s note: Sen. Christopher Bray is chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
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