The global climate negotiations in Glasgow just wrapped up, and the U.S. Congress is negotiating the Build Back Better Act — which currently includes the largest investment in climate action in United States 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 Vermonters being most at risk from heat waves, lower income Vermonters often being more likely to live in areas that are prone to flooding, Black Vermonters 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 well-being 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. 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 places an enormous burden on Vermont families. The Climate Action Plan must help Vermonters transition to electric vehicles (EVs), invest in public transit and support more biking, walking and other clean transportation options. Combined, we can create a more affordable and equitable transportation system, while cutting climate pollution.
For these strategies to succeed, we need to fully fund them. While we are fortunate to have the opportunity to invest significant federal funding in clean transportation solutions in the short-term, we must also continue working toward long-term, sustainable funding sources like the Transportation and Climate Initiative Program — a regional cap and invest program — so these programs can benefit all Vermonters.
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.
This commentary is by Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director, Vermont Public Interest Research Group; Lauren Hierl, executive director, Vermont Conservation Voters; Peter Sterling, interim executive director, Renewable Energy Vermont; and Jordan Giaconia, public policy manager, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility.