Climate Commission Report: Vermont’s Roadmap to a ‘Green Economy’

By Elizabeth Courtney

December 13, 2007

Many years ago, my neighbor, Lottie Anderson, taught me how to draw water from a well that appeared to be dry.

I was an eight-year-old kid from Boston who had just moved with my family to the beautiful, rural, Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. We were looked upon with great suspicion by our salt of the earth neighbors, who took it upon themselves to educate me in the important elements of life, covering varied life-skills like making apple butter over an open fire to fattening up hogs for slaughter.

I was an eager learner.

It turns out that the secret to getting water from a “dry” well was to pour some water down the well and to pump until the water flowed. At age eight, it seemed like magic. As I learned later, it is, in fact, a time honored practice to achieve momentum in a number of situations.

Reducing the effects of climate change is one of those situations.

Recently, the Governor’s Climate Change Commission — on which I served — issued its long-awaited report outlining 38 “policy options” to bring Vermont’s contributions to climate change down to meet a set of aggressive goals established by the governor in a 2005 executive order.

The governor’s response to the commission’s report has been a real disappointment. He thanked the six commission members for a recommendation we did not make (developing an exclusive partnership with UVM) and then outlined an action plan that has been criticized by both the left and right. Middlebury scholar and climate expert Bill McKibben called the governor’s plan to sell carbon credits a “fantasy land.” Free market advocate John McLaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute called the carbon trading notion a “giant scam.” Entrepreneur Jeff Wolfe of the successful White River Junction-based renewable energy company groSolar said this about the governor’s reaction to the commission’s report: “If (Douglas) considers this leadership, I guess I own a different dictionary.”

What did the governor say about the commission’s recommendations? Virtually nothing, other than he thinks they will cost $5 billion over the next 20 years.

Here’s where priming the pump comes in.

What the Douglas administration has not mentioned are the billions of dollars Vermonters could reap in financial benefits from doing these things as well as the avoided costs of doing nothing.

In other words, even with an arguably inflated $250 million estimate to “prime” the pump each year for 20 years, the truth is, it’s a return on investment any Wall Street banker would love.

Two of the commission’s top recommendations — expanding Efficiency Vermont’s electrical energy programs and expanding their mandate to include heating oil — would reduce carbon by 26.8 million metric tons over 20 years. For up front costs of $762 million over 20 years Vermonters would save over $2 billion— a three to one payback on the investment.

Looking at the “costs” of implementing these policies in isolation of their fiscal benefits would be like looking at the gallons of water used to prime the pump without considering the gallons reaped from the “well.”

As the commission reports, we need to invest a little, starting first with expanding our world-class efficiency utility. We also need to:

  • Conserve Vermont’s forests and farms to provide food and energy – the greatest, single greenhouse gas reduction option (and an inexpensive move requiring little more than leadership and the implementation of our new growth center law);
  • Build a good, reliable public transportation network to give Vermonters alternatives to increasingly expensive transportation costs. (Raising the funds through a $150, one-time surcharge on a brand new $35,000 SUV would be a good place to start.)
  • Invest in energy innovation and job creation to build the ‘green economy’ that will define the 21st century (a strategy savvy nations and states have embraced as they turn serious profits from solar, wind, biofuels and other renewable technologies).

It’s time for a little good old, Yankee common sense. One dollar invested today – like one bucket of water down a dry well – will pay off threefold tomorrow. Let’s prime that pump now.
By Elizabeth Courtney, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Reach Elizabeth by emailing or calling 802-223-2328.