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Why is Vermont’s Administration Back-Peddling on Addressing the Climate Crisis?

The following is a commentary by Brian Shupe, Executive Director, Vermont Natural Resources Council

It is disappointing that Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore – in a recent commentary entitled “Beware of Hyper-urgency on Climate Policy” – continued the Scott Administration’s foot dragging on addressing the global crisis of climate change.  

Moore’s “go-slow” advice was echoed the following day by Governor Scott in his budget address, in which he said Vermont needs “a plan” before taking meaningful action to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels in how we heat our homes and businesses. The reality is that a broad-based plan exists to reduce pollution and help Vermonters become more resilient in a warming world, and it is past time for action. 

I support planning to address crisis and uncertainty as much as anyone, which is why I supported then-Governor Douglas’s Governor’s Commission on Climate Change, which completed a plan in October, 2007.  It’s also why I supported Governor Scott’s formation of the Vermont Climate Action Commission, which submitted its report and detailed recommendations in July 2018.  

And, after witnessing both Governor Douglas and Governor Scott ignore the advice of their hand-selected commissions, I supported the Global Warming Solutions Act, which resulted in the formation of the Vermont Climate Council, who finalized the Vermont Climate Action Plan in December 2021.  In fact, it’s right there on the Agency of Natural Resources’ website, where Secretary Moore is quoted as follows: 

A talented, passionate, and highly motivated group of Vermonters came together late last year to form Vermont’s Climate Council and draft this initial Climate Action Plan…The recommendations put forward in the Vermont Climate Action Plan reflect the collective work of the Vermont Climate Council, its five subcommittees, and ideas and feedback from the public.”

ANR then goes on to list the virtues of this Plan, which they refer to as “comprehensive”. You can read it here

So, why all the back-peddling?

Each of the past efforts to put a plan in place to tackle the climate crisis provided concrete strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to meet the state’s now-mandatory reduction goals by 2030.  This requires urgent action, not a fourth plan.  It is imperative that the Legislature act now, this biennium, to transition Vermont away from fossil fuels, especially in the transportation and heating sectors, in part by advancing a well-designed Affordable Heat Act. This can be done in a way that not only reduces climate pollution, but that benefits Vermonters through lower home heating costs, better health outcomes, and good paying jobs.  

Transitioning off of fossil fuels won’t accomplish all that we need to do to meet the challenges of a drastically warming world.  Too many governments, businesses and individuals have ignored the “hyper-urgency of climate policy” for far too long, and we are now living with, and need to adapt to, the consequences.   

The increase in frequency of extreme storm events is among the most common, and most challenging, implications of a changing climate facing Vermont.  Building greater resilience to flooding by protecting our natural infrastructure – through wetlands, protected river corridors, riparian stream buffers, and intact, upland forests – is critical to preparing for a hotter, wetter, future. Wetlands, healthy riparian areas and headwater forests slow the flow of flood water and filter stormwater —that’s the kind of “slowing down” we should be advocating for! These are things that Vermont can accomplish with necessary urgency, and the Legislature has opportunities to do that this year. 

One of Vermont’s greatest assets in terms of long-term climate resilience, in addition to our ability to store and sequester carbon and maintain the ecological, cultural and economic resources that define the state’s character, are the extensive forests that still cover over 70% of the state. These forests are being lost to subdivision and poorly planned residential development, which threatens our ability to meet our climate goals.  Analysis conducted for the Climate Action Council indicates that we are experiencing forest loss and a steady decline in carbon sequestration rates.  If this trend continues, it will be much harder for Vermont to meet the Global Warming Solutions Act’s long-term target of net zero by 2050 even if we have success reducing emissions. 

Growing demand and interest for land and housing in Vermont, which includes increasing climate migration into our state, is exacerbating the pressure on our forests– just as it is fueling the housing crisis. Early indication is that many recent migrants into Vermont are people with resources, coming from high-cost metropolitan and west coast communities, who are able to import their jobs into the state in the new world of remote-work. Rising land values and interest in rural land across the state not only raises environmental concerns, but also concerns around equity, as more and more Vermonters can’t compete for high housing costs, nor people from out of state who are equally in need of a safe haven. 

Promoting compact, walkable residential neighborhoods around existing town centers has long been identified as a smart housing strategy. And if we’re going to create infrastructure for Vermont’s growing population, we need to be smart about it. We need to develop our downtowns in a way that keeps our systems of resilience intact. Remember, intact forests and protected wetlands are some of our best forms of flood insurance—and we need this insurance more than ever. Reducing the need for frequent automobile trips, and reducing the distance people need to travel for work, groceries, and school, is all possible with smart growth housing strategies.  This benefits people’s pocketbooks, and also keeps our greenhouse gas emissions down. 

So, in response to Secretary Moore’s and Governor Scott’s suggestion to “calm down”, I say: why wait? Taking action now to implement smart growth policies and help Vermonters access cleaner and more affordable heating options, cleaner transportation, and healthy and intact forests, wetlands, river corridors, and riparian areas—as called for by the Climate Action Plan—holds tremendous implications for the future resilience of Vermont, and should be a top priority for the legislature.  Anything less is negligence.