• At the grass roots
    April 16,2014

    It is becoming increasingly clear that unless the United States and other nations take drastic action to reduce carbon emissions within the coming decade, the world will not be able to avert a looming catastrophe as a result of climate change. Thus, the people of Vermont and the state’s policymakers need to rededicate themselves to the climate change challenge this year and in years to come.

    The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released a new report painting a grim picture of the changes now in motion and what will happen if the leading producers of carbon emissions do not take action. It is the familiar forecast of rising sea levels, food shortages, loss of species, poverty and disease, made grimmer by the fact it is happening even more rapidly than expected. The United States and China are the leading polluters, so they have the greatest responsibility for finding remedies.

    Yet action in the United States has been hindered by political and economic forces that have been difficult for President Barack Obama to overcome. That’s why it has become essential that change happen at the grass roots, in places such as Vermont. Vermont alone is not going to solve the climate crisis; the population of the state is smaller than that of Boston. But the United States will be able to overcome the resistance of the fossil fuel industry and its political allies if action at the grass roots creates a political imperative.

    History shows that all major political reforms achieve critical mass only when people rise up and demand change. Otherwise, inertia enforced by economic power and political paralysis rule the day. Thinking back on the past century, the three great reform eras have all been propelled by public demands for action.

    These were the progressive era, when President Theodore Roosevelt took pioneering steps to curb corporate power; the New Deal era, when President Franklin Roosevelt created programs in response to the Great Depression; and the civil rights era, when President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the sweeping civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Those advances in democracy faced enormous resistance — economic, social and political — which was overcome only because people rose up and demanded change. The people have not risen up on climate change.

    There is a general recognition that climate change is happening, but corporate interests and political conservatives have sought to create confusion and doubt so as to stymie action. And yet in some places, notably California, people have overcome resistance and taken meaningful action. Vermont, too, has acted, lending its voice to rising clamor for concrete steps to reduce carbon emissions.

    Vermont’s efforts to promote renewable energy is leading to the development of solar power at a pace exceeding expectations. In fact, solar power has already reached a level of development that people are having second thoughts, wondering if regulations are required to guide the siting and construction of solar projects. Wind power in Vermont may have maxed out because of public resistance to massive construction on pristine mountaintops and because of recognition that other regions may be better suited geographically. Even so, several major projects are already in place.

    The state has taken steps to address the problem of energy efficiency in homes and other buildings, an area with a huge potential for energy savings. Proposals to fund energy efficiency work have faced obstacles that require creative thinking to resolve. Climate experts say that some sort of carbon tax will be essential in addressing climate change. Vermont could enact its own carbon tax on gasoline and other fossil fuels with the dedicated purpose of creating major savings in fuels used in the heating of the state’s aged and inefficient housing stock.

    These are the sorts of steps that other states, in the absence of federal action, might be tempted to emulate. Nobody likes to talk about tax increases, but the climate crisis is promising outcomes that will be far more costly. It will have to be the people who demand action, and that includes the people of Vermont.

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