The global climate negotiations in Glasgow wrapped up recently, and the U.S. Congress is negotiating the Build Back Better Act — which currently includes the largest investment in climate action in U.S. history. Meanwhile, the Vermont Climate Council is working to deliver Vermont’s first-ever Climate Action Plan by Dec. 1. As a global problem that requires local action, climate solutions are rightly being considered simultaneously at the international, national, and state levels.
Just days ago, researchers here in Vermont released an assessment of the impacts of global warming on our state, and it’s not pretty. They found we’ll experience more extreme weather and severe flooding, shorter winters and slowly vanishing ski seasons, and more tick and mosquito-borne diseases. Vermont, like the rest of the world, is already feeling the impacts of the climate crisis.
We also know that time and again, those who have contributed least to the problem suffer first and worst from the impacts of fossil fuel-driven climate change. Here in Vermont that reality shows up in a variety of ways, including children and older residents being most at risk from heat waves, lower income residents often being more likely to live in areas that are prone to flooding, Black residents facing significant barriers to accessing the benefits of efficiency and clean energy due to their higher likelihood of renting rather than owning their homes — the list goes on.
This moment represents a unique opportunity for Vermont to invest in climate action and strengthen our local economy, while beginning to right historical wrongs. As organizations dedicated to the health and wellbeing of Vermont’s people, environment, and local economy, we write to urge the Vermont Climate Council to support several critical actions — steps that have been identified by the council during its year-long process, and are being discussed now.
First, we must transform our transportation system by joining the regional Transportation & Climate Initiative Program, and we must implement it equitably. Transportation creates more climate pollution than any other part of Vermont’s economy — and the high cost of fossil fuels for our cars and trucks creates an enormous burden on Vermont families. Unless we help Vermonters transition to electric vehicles, invest in public transit, and support more biking, walking and other clean transportation options, we simply cannot create a more affordable, equitable transportation system — or get our climate pollution under control. Transportation & Climate Initiative Program provides a long-term funding source, at an estimated $20 million per year, for such initiatives. This turnkey program must be included in the Climate Action Plan alongside complementary policies to ensure it is implemented equitably and its proceeds benefit Vermont’s most vulnerable.
A second key opportunity identified by the Climate Council is cleaning up our heating systems. Buildings are Vermont’s second biggest source of our climate pollution, and investing dramatically more in weatherization efforts while also helping Vermonters install efficient, electric heating options will provide the simultaneous benefits of making Vermonters’ homes healthier and more comfortable while cutting our climate pollution.
Third, the council should support a requirement for Vermont’s utilities to provide far more new, locally produced renewable electricity and energy storage, rather than continuing our overwhelming reliance on large-scale, imported energy. Building new renewables is the only way to truly cut electric-sector climate pollution. Further, in-state renewables make Vermont’s electricity system more resilient, and our state more energy independent — all while keeping more of our dollars local. Our current Renewable Energy Standard falls short on these issues, and needs to be updated.
Fourth, the Climate Council has identified the importance of adopting an Environmental Justice policy here in Vermont to ensure we are pursuing a fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens in a just and transparent way. Vermont is late to the game in adopting an Environmental Justice policy. In fact, a majority of U.S. states already have one on the books. Vermont would benefit significantly by engaging in the process of pursuing environmental justice and clearly identifying and proactively remedying environmental injustices.
A fifth area we strongly support is implementing a suite of smart growth policies that encourage sustainable development — particularly to address the housing crisis — in compact community centers. Policies to support this type of development must be paired with policies to simultaneously protect our natural assets, including intact healthy forests, agricultural soils, and wetlands, all of which underpin our communities’ climate resilience.
Collectively, these policies will also require a significant state investment to ensure their successful implementation. Will Vermont choose action, investment, and equity, or dithering and injustice? It’s up to us. We must do our part — for our own sake, for the global community, and for future generations. With each passing year of delayed action, we are placing an increasing burden on our children and grandchildren to live with the repercussions of the mess we made.
It’s time to think globally, and act locally to reduce Vermont’s climate impact. If done right, the Council’s climate action plan can help us move forward, as we continue to improve upon the process and engage more Vermonters. Together, we can move our brave little state toward a brighter and more equitable clean energy future.
Ben Edgerly Walsh is climate and energy program director for Vermont Public Interest Research Group; Lauren Hierl is executive director of Vermont Conservation Voters; Peter Sterling is interim executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont; Jordan Giaconia is public policy manager for Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.