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Voices / Legislative Update

Vermont must join fight against climate change

Carbon pricing can be a conservative, market-based strategy in the battle against climate change. Vermont must take this modest step.

Rep. Mollie Burke serves as District 2 representative from Brattleboro. A Progressive/Democrat, she serves on the House Committee on Transportation, House Sexual Harassment Prevention Panel, Legislative Advisory Committee on the State House, Public Transit Advisory Council, and the Canvassing Committee.


In early March, bare ground showed through patches of snow. February days were too warm, with a number of snowstorms ending with rain here in the Connecticut River valley.

More recently, Nor’easters have redeemed the season to some extent. As an avid Nordic skier I welcome a bit more winter, but lament the lack of its reliability, becoming reliably jumbled and erratic. Swings of temperature are now the norm.

This year, I missed the quiet and calm of a deep January blizzard, the blue shadows of trees on bright February snow cover.

Weather and climate do not always correlate, but I know that all is not well with the weather — and that our changing climate is to blame. Coincidentally, 98 percent of the world’s scientists believe likewise.

* * *

While I feel a deep personal loss, I also worry about the impact of climate change on the Vermont economy, so dependent on the ski industry.

Our small state relies heavily on tourist dollars to fund the basic functions of government. As a Vermont state legislator, I feel especially tuned to this economic reality.

A bad ski season (like the one caused by this year’s February rains) causes a big dip in our state revenues, which then raises the possibility of cuts in all the services we provide. The same holds true for a bad fall foliage season or a bad maple sugaring season.

* * *

When I was elected to the Legislature nearly 10 years ago, one of my highest priorities was to address the issue of climate change, which had concerned me for a number of years.

I believed I would be able to promote policies to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Once elected, at my request, I was assigned to the House Committee on Transportation, since 47 percent of Vermont’s greenhouse gases come from this sector of our economy.

The state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan of 2016 laid out a vision for achieving 90 percent renewable energy by 2050, with markers and strategies in the various sectors. Shumlin and Scott administrations have both made commitments to prioritizing public transit, rail, and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and other programs. I have sponsored legislation restricting vehicle idling and promoting measures to support bikers and pedestrians.

Despite such initiatives, Vermont’s greenhouse gases actually increased 4 percent over the 1990 baseline in 2013, and they continue to increase. This is not only discouraging, but, more to the point, it also is threatening to our economy, our culture, and our general well-being.

* * *

Seeing the need to ramp up our collective effort, I, and a number of other legislators, started looking into carbon pricing as a market-based solution to cutting emissions, a strategy that has been successfully implemented in British Columbia and a number of European countries.

During the 2017 session, I sponsored legislation for a comprehensive study of carbon pricing and cap-and-trade policies. A group of environmental advocates, business leaders, and legislators started working on a carbon pricing plan that would be revenue-neutral — and, most importantly, not adversely affect low-income and rural Vermonters.

The resulting Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy Exchange (ESSEX) Plan would impose a gradually rising fee on fossil fuels while significantly lowering electric rates for all customers, with additional rebates for low- and moderate-income and rural citizens.

This plan has no chance of passing the Legislature this session, but it is an exciting step forward.

And in 2017, Governor Phil Scott established the Vermont Climate Action Commission, charged with drafting an action plan to reach our state’s renewable-energy and greenhouse-gas reduction goals.

The commission held a number of public outreach sessions where they heard strong advocacy for some form of carbon pricing. So it was not surprising that one of the five recommendations of the commission (supported by 20 of the 21 members) was “to study all regulatory and market de-carbonization mechanisms.”

* * *

A group of conservative Reagan- and Bush-era luminaries, including James Baker, Henry Paulson, and George Shultz have recognized the need for action on a warming climate and are advocating for carbon pricing as a conservative, market-based strategy.

Their advocacy could provide some ideological cover for our Republican governor, who exhibited bold leadership in establishing the commission but who has pulled back a bit on the need to study de-carbonization.

A number of legislators are carrying the Climate Action Commission recommendations forward, working to ensure that money for a study of carbon pricing, including the ESSEX Plan, will get incorporated into this year’s appropriations bill.

It’s a modest step forward.

We know that Vermont alone cannot address this crisis, that it requires an “all in” approach. But we can step in, joining other countries and states that are doing so, and setting an example for others.

It’s the right and courageous thing to do.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #454 (Wednesday, April 11, 2018). This story appeared on page D5.

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