BRATTLEBORO — They came on foot and on bicycle.
Approximately 100 cyclists took over Western Avenue on Sept. 8 as they participated in the Windham County Rise for Climate Rally and Ride.
The riders took a turn, glided down Green Street, turned left onto Elliot Street, and finally pedaled their way along Main Street to the Town Common, where they were met by more than 100 marchers who walked from Plaza Park across from the Brattleboro Food Co-op.
The rally and ride served as Brattleboro's contribution to a global action demanding policy makers tackle climate change.
A single cyclist feels alone on Brattleboro's busy roads, said Abby Mnookin of Brattleboro350, which helped organize the rally.
Add 100 riders to the lane, and “it feels so different and really empowering,” she said.
'A justice issue'
Brattleboro350 is the local chapter - or “node” - of 350Vermont, a nonprofit, grassroots organization designed to reverse climate change. In Vermont, Rutland, Montpelier, Burlington, Bennington, and Middlebury also held events, along with multiple communities in other states and other countries worldwide.
The Sept. 8 rallies were a precursor to the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco that started on Sept. 12. The summit aims to connect policy makers intent on making “aggressive commitments” to combat climate change.
Back at the Common, participants listened to speeches. They wandered the “bike petting zoo,” where they could check out one another's bicycles. Face painting, food, and crafts also made the day festive, said Mnookin.
“Oftentimes people feel more inspired” to take action when they see momentum in their own community, she said.
“Climate change is a justice issue,” said Mnookin, pointing out that while it impacts everyone, it does not impact everyone equally and most hurts people living on the margins of our society.
Brattleboro's rally focused on biking and walking. In Vermont, fossil-fuel based transportation contributes approximately 42 percent of the state's greenhouse gasses, according to 350Vermont.
“It's hard to address climate change without addressing issues in our transportation system,” Mnookin said.
Mnookin noted that Vermonters depend on cars to travel their rural state. The rally organizers hoped the event would encourage people to bike more.
Organizers also realize that for people to bike - or walk - in Brattleboro more, they need to feel safe. This would require infrastructure changes such as bike lanes or better sidewalks. Other programs such as carpooling or more robust public transit offerings would round out the transportation system, she said.
Finally, Mnookin added, it is important whom people vote into office. Individuals can drive change, she said. But, reversing climate change also takes political will.
It is easy to get caught up with the “naysayers” who believe nothing will change Vermont's dependency on cars. Mnookin's experience says otherwise.
Mnookin always enjoyed biking as a kid using a “toy bike” - one intended only for recreation. But about 15 years ago, she made the shift to using her bike for transportation.
“It was a tangible step I could take” to cut down on her use of fossil fuels, Mnookin said.
Investing in a fully electric cargo bike five years ago, however, was a “game changer,” said Mnookin, who uses her bike to transport herself and two kids. Her previously two-car household now has only one car in the driveway.
At the state level, advocating an 'all-in' approach
Speakers at the rally included State Rep. Mollie Burke, as well as representatives from other organizations like Youth4Change, VBike, and Brattleboro350.
“Climate change is on people's radar,” said Burke, a Progressive/Democrat representing Brattleboro's District 2. Having served on the House Transportation Committee for 10 years, Burke has witnessed the state's multiple efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.
For Burke's part, she has promoted various legislation and incentives. One such example: legislation to limit vehicle idling, which stalled in committee during the 2013-14 biennium. She has also supported policy requiring the state and municipalities to consider cyclists, pedestrians, and people with disabilities when planning road projects.
“Despite these efforts and official state policy, Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions actually increased by 16 percent over 1990 levels when they should be going down,” Burke said.
Part of the problem is scale, Burke said. She estimates that Vermonters drive approximately 60,000 gas-powered vehicles. To swap all of those cars for electric vehicles would be a herculean feat, she said.
“We need an all-in approach,” Burke said. In her opinion, the state needs to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions through a combination of policy, incentives, and initiatives. Some of the initiatives may need to work as disincentives similar to the way high taxes do on cigarettes.
Burke said the Legislature commissioned a report to study different approaches to reducing carbon. One question the lawmakers asked is whether a carbon tax is economically feasible in Vermont.
The Legislature understands that whatever it puts in place mustn't hurt vulnerable Vermonters, Burke said.
Daniel Quipp, another leader of Brattleboro350, echoed Burke.
New infrastructure to support pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation will go a long way to reducing climate change, he said.
“We need to rapidly get away from fossil fuels,” Quipp said.
The problem is, two core areas of Vermonters' lives generate the most greenhouse gases: vehicles (42 percent) and home heating fuels (28 percent).
Most people can't afford to purchase an electric car or a new heating system, Quipp said. This is where lawmakers need to pitch in with incentives or subsidies.
“There's not just one answer,” Quipp said.