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A scene from the Windham County Rise for Climate Rally and Ride on Sept. 7.

Voices / Viewpoint

We can lead by example

A state representative describes her journey toward climate activism and urges support for measures to put a price on carbon emissions, despite the political difficulty

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. This piece is adapted from a speech she gave at Windham County Rise for Climate Rally and Ride on Sept. 7.

Brattleboro

I have read, followed, and listened in person to Bill McKibben for quite a number of years. For a very long time he was one of a few voices speaking out on this issue.

I particularly remember a time, perhaps in 2005 — 13 years ago! — when Bill spoke in Putney about the fact that we had maybe 10 years to change course. As we all know, we have not been able to do that in any significant way — yet.

And now we are here at this moment in history, dealing with an unsettling present and a potentially catastrophic future.

We need only to think about this summer: unprecedented high temperatures and drought in Europe, wildfires in the West, and, closer to home, record-breaking heat in Vermont, particularly in recent days.

Even in little ways, this warming is disrupting our lives. A recent article in the Reformer talked about how the Brattleboro Union High School sports teams were altering their schedules to practice during cooler times of the day.

* * *

My own awareness of climate change arrived 25 or 30 years ago in a Parade magazine article reporting about carbon-dioxide emissions that were beginning to warm up the planet, trapping heat in what the writer called the “greenhouse effect.” I remember there was even a diagram of what that would look like.

The article said that if we didn’t act, we would face a future of more-intense storms, unpredictable weather, warmer winters in the North, intensifying heat, and rising seas from melting ice caps.

We knew all this then, and as a country we have failed to act. At the time, the threat was far off into the future, and we still had time.

After that, I started noticing changes in our Vermont winters. Our predictable cycles — snow just before Thanksgiving, deep cold in January, a little thaw at the end of the month, then more snow and somewhat diminished cold through mid-March or so, followed by mud season — became less predictable.

Now, freezing rain appears with more frequency, ice outs on ponds and rivers come earlier, periods of extreme cold alternate with unusually warm days, and maple sugaring season comes earlier.

While I feel a profound personal loss of these deep and magical winters, these changes also impact a culture built around snow and cold and the livelihoods of many Vermonters.

And these concerns pale before the dramatic predictions of flood, fire, and drought that loom in the background.

* * *

In 2008, a chance phone call presented me with the possibility of running for the Vermont Legislature. It was not something I had thought about, though I had been active in town affairs in various capacities. I had also been a member of Brattleboro Climate Protection, the first organization in Brattleboro that talked about climate change.

And here I want to give a big shout-out to Paul Cameron (whom some of you may remember) who arrived in Brattleboro in 2002. In his quiet and unassuming way, he built an organization that helped to raise awareness of the issue and engaged others in projects to reduce carbon emissions.

My decision to run for the Legislature was directly inspired by my concern about the climate and the hope that I could make an impact in some way. I have found out that this requires much collaboration and strong personal relationships with colleagues, along with pressure and support from advocates and activists like this group assembled.

I have now served on the Transportation Committee in the House for 10 years. During that time, I have been able to promote legislation to limit vehicle idling, to give greater safety protections for bicyclists and pedestrians, to require the state and municipalities to consider the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, and persons with disabilities in the planning of transportation projects.

I have supported park-and-ride construction, better public transit, and electric-vehicle incentives.

I have attended weekly meetings of our Climate Caucus and joined other legislators to advocate for weatherization money.

I have strongly supported the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, which requires specific reductions in greenhouse gases, and I have worked with advocates and other legislators to put a price on carbon.

* * *

Despite these efforts and official state policy, Vermont’s greenhouse-gas emissions have actually increased by 16 percent over 1990 levels when they should be going down.

These are the latest figures.

The scale of the problem just in Vermont is enormous. In order to meet our emissions goals of a 50-percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2028, we would need to replace 60,000 fossil-fueled vehicles with electric vehicles, install 25,000 advanced wood-heat systems, install 60,000 cold-climate heat-pump systems, and enact other measures.

We also need to put a price on carbon, though until now, doing so has been politically difficult. We need to do so without impacting our most vulnerable and low-income citizens.

* * *

However, we see some bright lights on the horizon. I have been privileged to be part of a small group of legislators and advocates strategizing ways to get some form of carbon pricing into law. If we can do so, it will help to incentivize the measures I just mentioned.

This past session, with the help of some key members of the House Committee on Appropriations, we were able to get money for a nonpartisan study of the economic impact of carbon pricing on the Vermont economy. We are hopeful that the study will show a positive economic benefit in addition to an environmental one. We will have legislation ready to introduce once the study is completed in January.

However, many forces oppose any form of carbon pricing, and we are going to need the help of lots of activists. Talk to your friends and neighbors, demand action, and support your like-minded Windham County legislators.

Some people ask what difference it will make even if Vermont can put a price on carbon. This is a worldwide problem. And that is true.

However, we can lead the way for other states, municipalities, and countries. We can lead by example and show the positive benefits that can result.

After the 1927 flood in Vermont, President Calvin Coolidge spoke of our “brave little state.” We need to be brave — now more than ever.

* * *

As much as I feel despair at times, I believe we cannot allow ourselves to stop our work and give up hope.

I like to refer to a wonderful book by Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark. She makes the case for hope as a guiding principle to act in a time of darkness, uncertainty, and fear.

Today, I want to encourage all of us to redouble our efforts and our commitments, to join with others, to engage positively with those who disagree with us, and to never give up hope even in the face of daunting odds.

Thank you to the participants of the Windham County Rise for Climate Rally and Ride for your important and outstanding work.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #476 (Wednesday, September 12, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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