Op/Ed

Climate Matters: Vermont’s climate politics and the midterms

GREG DENNIS

30th in a series

On paper it looks like Vermont has done a lot to address climate change. 

There’s more money in the state budget for clean energy programs. The state has a Climate Action Plan. There are new guidelines for “environmental justice,” and the Global Warming Solutions Act commits the state to meet climate goals or face difficult litigation.

Will next month’s election bring new hope for the Vermont climate movement or more challenges? It’s too early to say, but we can make some educated guesses. 

There’s going to be big turnover in the new legislative session; of the 150 Vermont House members, 43 aren’t running for re-election.

Chris Pearson and Sarah Copeland Hanzas, chairs of the House Climate Caucus who were so instrumental in approval of the Climate Action Plan, have left the building. Becca Balint’s leadership in the Vermont Senate will be missed as she runs for to the U.S. House.

One huge factor will remain: the governor’s skepticism about climate action. 

Whatever you think of Gov. Phil Scott — and many Vermonters like him — political habits die hard even in the face of the climate crisis, and Vermonters do love their Republican governors. So many Democrats voted for Scott in 2020, apparently delirious that he wasn’t an anti-vaxxer, that he took nearly 70% of the vote from David Zuckerman, a popular lieutenant governor. Despite the overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, Scott seems a dead lock to be re-elected this fall for a fourth term over Brenda Siegel, his savvy but largely unknown Democratic opponent. 

One key question for 2023: Can the legislature muscle through clean heat and renewable energy standards, and overcome Scott’s intransigent opposition to restrictions on fossil fuel businesses? 

The heat standard nearly passed this year over Scott’s all-too-typical veto. In fact, the veto override fell short only when a House member who had initially voted for the bill reversed himself. Rep. Thomas Bock of Chester, a Democrat, had the dubious distinction of being for it before he was against it.

The Renewable Energy Standard would set the amount of renewable energy that utilities need to include in their portfolios. One concern among the state’s environmental groups is what constitutes “renewable.” 350 Vermont has been especially adamant in warning about green washing through the phony claim that gas is renewable when it’s just the same old poison in a new bottle. 

Can these organizations find common ground and enough votes to overcome a veto from Governor No? It won’t be easy.

On a related issue, the Green Mountain State could be a leader in permanently setting aside forests to sequester carbon emissions, an essential step in the Climate Action Plan. But Scott also vetoed H.606, a bill that would have set goals of conserving 30% of Vermont’s land by 2030 and 50% by 2050.

Moreover, there’s still plenty of shortsighted NIMBY sentiment when it comes to siting solar projects. And as the energy brainiacs among us will point out, there are challenges with the existing electrical grid that make it harder to add and use more green energy.

It ain’t all bad news, though. 

The new federal infrastructure and “inflation reduction” laws will pump millions into Vermont climate and resiliency projects. 

The all-but-certain new state treasurer, Mike Pieciak, says he wants to explore having the state divest of risky investments in fossil fuel companies. If Vermont does divest, it would join the state of Maine, piles of public money held by New York and California, and other funds worth trillions, which have all pledged to move their money out of companies that profit from fossil fuels.

Locally, the retirement of Republican Rep. Harvey Smith pits an opponent of climate action (Republican Jon Christiano) against an advocate for doing more on climate (Democrat Jubilee McGill). The newly redrawn Addison-5 district now encompasses a portion of Middlebury, in addition to Weybridge, much of New Haven and Bridport.

It’s also easy to find many grassroots efforts addressing the climate crisis. The ACORN energy and food co-ops have been at it for years. The Climate Economy Action Center (CEAC) has drafted a climate action plan for Addison County, building on a substantial study that identified our biggest local greenhouse gas emitters. 

CEAC also convened two climate roundtables that brought together over 20 local organizations taking action to address climate change in housing, transportation, home heating and waste treatment. 

The Pollinator Pathways effort, along with “WindowDresser” projects in Bristol and Middlebury, show the appeal of hands-on volunteer work. And whatever happens at the state level, these local citizen-led efforts will soldier on.

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Greg Dennis is a writer, Cornwall resident and longtime environmental activist.

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