Lawmakers seek progress on climate goals

Members of the Legislative Climate Solutions Caucus aim to mobilize citizens around initiatives to meet Vermont’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 2025

BRATTLEBORO — Climate change has taken center stage, from youth-led protests, to newspaper op-eds, to conversations at the Tuesday night Selectboard meetings.

Most of these events have reflected a high-pitched, we're-all-going-to-die-and-nobody-cares urgency.

On Nov. 19, in a meeting at St. Michael's Episcopal Church, the state legislative Climate Solutions Caucus struck a different, more-measured and practical, note: Climate change is here. This is what we're doing about it. This is how you can help.

The meeting was one of many the caucus is holding around the state as a way to build grassroots support for legislation planned for 2020.

Caucus co-chair Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, explained that several lawmakers feel frustrated that despite Gov. Phil Scott's claims that his administration is working to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, few initiatives have gone into effect.

They aim to change that.

The caucus's top goal for the Legislature after representatives return to the State House in January is to pass bills that will make the state's emissions goals legally enforceable.

Vermont has made steady progress in meeting its renewable energy goal of 90 percent renewables by 2025, according to a report from the Energy Action Network, a Montpelier-based advocacy nonprofit that “works to achieve Vermont's 90% renewable by 2050 total energy commitment and to significantly reduce Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions in ways that create a more just, thriving, and sustainable future for Vermonters,” according to its website.

Despite that progress, the state struggles to meet its greenhouse-gas emission goals as set out in the Paris climate accord.

Shortly after President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw the United States from the agreement, which 194 countries have signed, Gov. Phil Scott announced that Vermont would join the U.S. Climate Alliance.

The state is one of 25 that have joined the organization, which commits to advance the goals of the international agreement despite the federal policy shift.

This agreement sets 2025 as the deadline for Vermont to reduce its emissions to levels that fall 26 to 28 percent below those measured in 2005.

According to EAN, the state has reduced emissions by 2 percent since 2005. Overall, emissions have increased 16 percent since 1990.

“We can tell two stories about Vermont: a renewable energy leader and a climate laggard,” The EAN report writers wrote. “Both are true.”

Members of the Windham County legislative delegation also attended the meeting. The lawmakers echoed Copeland-Hanzas, saying that the mission to reduce carbon emissions presents challenges but also offers opportunities - like boosting economic development or becoming energy independent.

The important thing, they said, was ensuring that new policies do no harm to low-income Vermonters.

Reducing emissions and policy areas

Copeland-Hanzas said that the top two sources of greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont come from transportation (43 percent) and home-heating fuels (28 percent). The next-highest category, agriculture, contributes 11 percent.

Based on this information, the Climate Solutions Caucus has identified four main policy areas its members will focus on during the upcoming biennium.

• Accountability: The caucus plans to advocate for passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act to turn the state's greenhouse-gas reduction targets from aspirations into enforceable mandates.

In 2006, California passed legislation by this name, as did Massachusetts in 2008.

Vermont House lawmakers submitted their version of the bill - co-sponsored by Copeland-Hanzas - during the last session, and it now sits in the House Committee on Energy and Technology.

• Cap and invest: This policy tool would mean placing a cap on transportation emissions and investing in ways for the state to reduce emissions through efforts such as creating better public transportation or reducing the number of fossil-fuel-powered vehicles.

The caucus supports the state joining 12 other Northeastern states in a program called the Transportation Climate Initiative developed by their governors, including Scott.

The governors will unveil their policy in December. The states will then have until the spring to opt in.

“We're cautiously optimistic that this could be a source of revenue for the state,” Copeland-Hanzas said.

• Building efficiency: Warm homes and businesses are also energy-efficient homes and businesses.

Copeland-Hanzas said that reducing the amount of emissions from heating is also an opportunity for economic development, as 78 percent of what Vermonters spend on heating leaves the economy.

The caucus hopes to develop training for contractors, appraisers, and real-estate agents in green-building best practices.

Copeland-Hanzas said that Vermont has multiple building codes that support energy efficiency but that those aren't enforced - yet.

• Electrification transition: Vermonters shifting toward powering more vehicles and homes with electricity will require tweaks to a number of incentives and policy, Copeland-Hanzas said.

For example, the Legislature recently removed a cap on the number of customers that could receive power from a single solar field.

Another proposal is to streamline incentives offered by the state: for example, incentives to purchase electric vehicles.

The caucus is also hoping to expand Efficiency Vermont's remit beyond energy efficiency to include all fuels so it can focus on transportation and heating as well.

Ultimately, the caucus aims to have the increased capacity of electricity generated in state and from renewable sources.

Reaching out to neighbors

Copeland-Hanzas asked the audience to actively support the caucus's work by following the progress of the bills, calling their representatives and senators, and contacting the governor's office.

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, who hosted the Brattleboro meeting, asked for a show of hands after asking the question, “Who has friends or family in other parts of the state?”

Most audience members raised their hands.

Call them, she said - get them to call their representatives.

That's where the people in this room have a lot of power, Kornheiser pointed out.

“Continue to have your voices in the State House,” she said. “And bring your neighbors along with you.”

Kornheiser added that many of the new policies or initiatives proposed by the caucus will require a collaborative approach. Such a process will also mean that the bills creating those new policies will move slowly through the Legislature's multiple committees.

“The more comprehensive the [bills] are, the more stops they have to make on a very long train,” she reminded the audience.

Leave no one behind

One theme that emerged during the evening was the concern that as the state adapts to new ways of living with climate change, no person or industry should be left behind.

And that raised the question: How does the state ensure that all communities end at the same place regarding climate change when not all communities are starting in the same place regarding resources or knowledge?

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission, said the process would require multiple efforts.

For starters, he said, towns need to sit down and ask themselves what they want in the next five or 10 years and predict how climate change will impact that vision.

Campany also suggested a regional approach to solutions, as opposed to a town-by-town approach.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said that conversations around policy changes often pit the state against communities, boiling down to “we're right, you're wrong.”

Instead, she said, it's important to avoid adversarial conversations in favor of framing initiatives and changes around “this is where we all fit in[to]” the solution.

Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, said, “Many of us have resources others don't, and we must acknowledge that before we make systemic changes.”

It's important that the climate-change initiatives don't hurt low-income or rural Vermonters, she cautioned.

'They're Vermonters, too'

In a separate interview, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, who serves a number of rural towns such as Readsboro, Stamford, and Wardsboro, said that she has had multiple conversations with people who are experiencing the impacts of climate change.

Yet, implementing some of the changes suggested by the caucus comes with challenges.

A non-starter for Sibilia are other conversations she's had with members of environmental-advocacy groups who say they won't subsidize the rural lifestyle and that it's OK to leave these rural communities to fend for themselves.

“That is not happening,” she said. “They're Vermonters, too.”

Sibilia's suggested solution? Innovate.

“We can solve problems,” she said. “We don't have to abandon people.”

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