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Vermont Taking Charge

Re-posted from the December 24th Rutland Herald/Times Argus

By Brian Shupe

In his famous “day of affirmation” speech to students at the University Cape Town, South Africa, the late Robert Kennedy stated, “There is a Chinese curse which says, ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not we live in interesting times.”

His point was that uninteresting times are characterized by peace and security, while interesting times are defined by uncertainty and conflict.

With the election of President-elect Donald Trump, we have unquestionably entered into interesting times that have the potential to reshape our place in the world, our national landscape, and the relationship between the federal government and the states.

Our country will be wrestling with many issues in the coming years, including civil rights, economic security, access to health care and — of special importance to me — whether we will continue to protect and restore our natural resources and address climate change. And based on the records of many of the people that Donald Trump has nominated to steward our shared natural heritage on the national stage, I believe it will be up to the states to take action.

According to Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, “With these nominations, it’s clearer than ever that Donald Trump is hoping to install the most anti-environmental cabinet in our nation’s history.”

Scott Pruitt, for example, was selected to head up the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal body charged with enforcing the nation’s water and air quality laws. As attorney general from the oil-rich state of Oklahoma, Pruitt was active in suing the EPA on several occasions to weaken the laws that he will soon be charged with enforcing.

According to Pruitt, “The debate (over climate change) is far from settled. Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind. That debate should be encouraged — in classrooms, public forums, and the halls of Congress.” Ninety-nine percent of scientist disagree — the debate is settled, and we need to take action to prevent catastrophe.

Another example is former Texas governor Rick Perry, who was nominated to lead the Department of Energy. The agency responsible for safeguarding the nation’s nuclear stockpile and advancing our energy future was, for the past eight years, run by Steven Chu, followed by Ernest Moniz, who were both accomplished scientists. If Perry’s nomination is confirmed, the agency will soon be overseen by another climate-change denier with a degree in animal husbandry, who famously forgot that he wanted to abolish this very agency.

What does this mean for Vermont? I wish I knew, but one thing is certain: If Vermonters care about maintaining clean air and water and continuing our transition away from fossil fuels, we will have to take responsibility for ourselves.

In the short term, this means building on recent accomplishments, including Act 64, the ambitious water quality bill passed in 2015, by ensuring that the law is adequately funded in the coming years. To succeed, we will also need to shift the state’s agricultural policies away from large, conventional dairy operations toward regenerative and organic farming.

It also will require better management of toxic chemicals — like PFOA, the harmful contaminant found polluting some Vermonters’ drinking water — that pose a growing threat to public health. Fortunately, a legislative study committee will soon be releasing a report with several recommendations to better protect human health and the environment, including stronger disclosure around chemical use, holding polluters accountable when toxic chemicals are released into our food and water supplies, and better tools for keeping them out of consumer products.

We can also build on the success of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation to continue strengthening and modernizing the state’s rural, forest-based economy. Our state parks have been revitalized in recent years, and Vermont’s outdoor gear industry is getting better organized with help from state government. To support these efforts, Rep. Peter Welch successfully pushed legislation to better understand what an important economic driver outdoor recreation is for Vermont.

To build on that cornerstone of our economy, we must address the threats to the health of the state’s forestland and the people and businesses that manage much of that resource. Forest health and the need to modernize the state’s struggling forest products industry has finally gained traction as issues vital to both Vermont’s economic and ecological well-being, and the Legislature and incoming administration should continue to focus on them.

Finally, it’s critical that we not roll back our commitment to well-sited renewable energy. This past legislative session, Act 174 was passed to establish a new planning process designed to provide local communities with a greater role in determining how we will achieve the goal of obtaining 90 percent of our energy from renewable sources by 2050. Like forest health, meeting this goal has already proven to be as important an economic development policy as an environmental one.

These are certainly interesting times, and how we position Vermont to meet the challenges ahead will determine when, and if, we ever have the opportunity to live in uninteresting times.