Legislature must focus on Vermonters needs with changing climate
Last month I attended a packed public meeting after work in Brattleboro hosted by colleagues from Vermont’s legislative Climate Caucus.
The Brattleboro regional meeting was one in a series of public events around the state, open to all, where caucus members explained the climate change initiatives they are prioritizing in the coming legislative session. These initiatives focus almost exclusively on reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuel for transportation and heat. This includes:
- Requiring the Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources to put in place a plan for mandatory greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
- Vermont joining the 14 state Transportation Climate Initiative which places a carbon emissions cap starting at the state’s current emissions level and declining over time. The number of tons of carbon allowances for sale would be capped. Fossil fuel suppliers would buy the allowances in an auction process from the state over a period of time up to the cap. The proceeds from the sale of the allowances would be used to lower emissions.
- Supporting increased electrification of transportation and heating by expanding renewable power
- Resiliency initiatives – unspecified
These events around the state are organizing Vermonters advocacy for climate initiatives. At the end of the Brattleboro meeting attendees signed up for alerts and pledged to support the caucus’ efforts during the session. There was also background talk about national advocacy groups like 350 and Extinction Rebellion threatening direct action protests if the legislature does not take decisive enough action.
Twelve hours later, I was home in the Deerfield Valley with neighboring legislator John Gannon for an early morning pre-legislative session event with our business community. Our goal was to help folks understand what we think the priorities will be and how they can engage on those issues. Just like the Climate Caucus meeting 12 hours earlier in Brattleboro.
Towns in our beautiful mountainous Valley are dealing with the effects of 20 years of population loss and aging. They have been working to diversify their weather dependent tourism economy for more than a decade and saw major investments in rebuilding buildings, bridges and roads following the devastating impacts from Tropical Storm Irene eight years ago. Residents have invested in local community development personnel and small infrastructure modernization projects. Nonetheless, police and fire in some towns remain in flood zones. Despite Valley-wide early compliance with Act 46, including closing a high school building, some districts are overwhelmed by the volume of regulations passed in the last five years. Districts are trying to hang in there with less students, one important reason being that when it snows, the major road to services in Bennington and Brattleboro often closes. Secretary of Education Dan French has referenced these as the most isolated towns in the state during visits here. Towns in the Valley are rallying to try and build out broadband infrastructure as the copper telephone network they rely on continues to deteriorate, and four whole towns in the Valley have no cell service. Residential housing sales in those towns despite a “statewide housing shortage”, are not brisk. It’s become more difficult to find employees, volunteer firefighters and elected town officials. We often lose our police officers to the State Police who are being dispatched from 20 miles further away as of 2016. Healthcare costs, premiums and deductibles are rising here like everywhere.
That morning we shared with our businesses what we expect will receive attention during this year’s session: paid family leave and accelerated minimum wage increases, retail sales of marijuana, added climate criteria to meet in Act 250, and a major focus on climate change and specifically emissions reductions.
“How can this be?” one woman asked incredulously. “Don’t they realize we need help?”
In October, I received an email from a Vermonter outside of my district strongly urging me to focus my energy this session to pass legislation put forward by 350Vermont during this year’s climate strike, and informing me that my actions were going to be watched.
This was my reply:
Thank you for your email and your passion for addressing climate change. I have children. I hope to have grandchildren. I share your sense of urgency.
In my role as a state legislator, I seek first to ensure the needs of my constituents are being met, then all Vermonters. I represent small towns in the middle of Southern Vermont – and was personally and professionally deeply engaged with Tropical Storm Irene which dramatically affected our towns.
When we enact legislation, it is usually with Burlington or Brattleboro in mind. Given that most Vermonters live in larger towns and cities it makes sense to me that we prioritize policy analysis for those areas.
But my people, the people who live in little rural towns and up in the hills, they matter too, and I spend most of my time working to make sure we also think about them at the state level.
That’s my job.
A good example of the large town vs rural town policy difference is with the telecommunications and telephone system. In most of Vermont’s large towns and cities, residents can call for help in multiple ways – cell phone, landline phone, voice over internet protocols, or maybe even by going outside to flag a police officer down.
In many rural towns, people only have landline telephone service, and often it doesn’t work consistently. So I have spent a large amount of time in the legislature trying to get policies passed that will ensure my people can literally call for help when they need to.
With climate change, my priority as a Vermont state legislator is protecting my communities from the impacts of climate change they are feeling right now. These include more frequent storms and more frequent power and phone outages – especially in places with too little capacity to deal with the increasing effects of climate change.
We need to make sure Vermont’s small rural communities are not left behind in our energy transition and that we find ways to make sure they have public charging stations, distributed electric generation and transmission maintained by stable regulated utility operators, weatherized buildings, adequately sized culverts, recognition of vulnerable persons and help replacing fossil fuel heating devices with adequate alternative heating sources.
These issues are more urgent to me then reducing Vermont’s emissions. Reducing fossil fuel usage and rejoining global climate efforts are critical, but if we successfully reduce Vermont emissions to zero, my people are still going to be dealing with increasing power and communications outages, transportation interruptions and inadequate sheltering. Because climate change is already here. These are the issues I’ll be focusing on during the coming legislative session.