Any push by Vermont organizations backing the ESSEX plan may face an uphill battle if France’s protests are any sign of sentiment.
The dissonance over a proposal went from disruptive to violent, with cars being burned and businesses being looted in Paris and in other cities around France.
The turmoil sparked by French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to boost gas taxes is just the latest example of an emerging political truism, pundits say.
The ESSEX Plan would capitalize on the fact that Vermont’s electricity comes primarily from renewable sources. The plan aims to make fossil fuels more expensive while cutting the cost of electricity by up to 27 percent.
While economists hail them as the best, most effective way to limit greenhouse gas emissions, carbon taxes are proving a tough sell for politicians who have to work and win elections in the real world.
Being focused on our carbon footprint and more “green” is important, and Vermont has always taken pride in trying to be first in initiatives supporting that cause.
But carbon taxes — and passing on those costs from businesses to consumers — through product may prove to be a challenging sell. Vermonters are going to want a lot of justification.
Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, nixed a study of a tax on fossil fuels. The authors of the ESSEX Plan said they’re pushing ahead anyway.
Like elsewhere in the world where such initiatives are being pursued, there is a stark debate.
Proponents argue the need to curb fossil fuel emissions that contribute to global warming. Opponents say taxes on carbon emissions hurt consumers.
In Vermont, the proposed carbon tax was cited as a threat to the low-income Vermonters, or households living on fixed incomes. Add to that concern that Vermont has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation, meaning that even under the best circumstances, older homes are not insulated enough to make them energy efficient. Any tax placed on fuel companies would likely be passed on to the consumers desperately trying to make ends meet to get through the winter.
Critics also say electricity can’t supply enough energy to meet Vermont’s winter heating needs. Other Northeastern states have also been pursuing similar proposals in their legislatures, however, little progress has been made.
That struggle is very local, and very personal.
But now the carbon tax has taken on a global dynamic that is dominating the news.
On Monday, President Emmanuel Macron was to address the nation in response to the anger among many middle-class and working-poor citizens frustrated over their declining economic means. That included the proposed carbon tax.
The so-called Yellow Vest movement has transfixed France and spilled into other countries in Europe. The Yellow Vests take their name from the fluorescent hazard vests adopted by the protesters as a sign of their economic distress.
According to news outlets, Macron has been conferring with advisers and ministers and will meet with a wider group, including local elected officials, members of Parliament and union representatives, to discuss proposals aimed at addressing at least some of the movement’s demands.
“Clearly we have underestimated the need of our fellow citizens to speak up about the difficulties they face and to be involved in the formulation of solutions,” Benjamin Griveaux, a government spokesman, said in an interview Sunday on Europe 1 Radio.
“The solutions that we need to find must take into consideration each person’s reality — it’s almost like tailored to fit,” he said. “The anger that is being expressed is sometimes very different from one area to another.”
Like Macron, lawmakers who want to back the ESSEX Plan are going to have to figure out ways to connect with fellow Vermonters, many of whom are feeling the pinch of low wages and high taxes.
In France, the mood has been described as “many who feel abandoned” by politicians and policymakers who are out of step with real-world concerns.
Most Vermonters will agree they want to preserve the climate and the environment — but not at the expense of providing for their families.
That’s a hard line to walk.
It is a classic conundrum: The debate presents a clash between theoretical elegance and political pragmatism. In the end, no matter where the debate leads, Vermonters — all Vermonters — need to agree which comes first.