Earlier this year, for the first time, national polls were showing that climate change was a top issue of concern for many voters. The world has been upended in recent months, though, with the confluence of so many pressing issues – a global pandemic and public health crisis, a crippled economy, systemic racism laid bare, an historic election with immeasurable stakes – and climate change seems to have fallen off the radar screen for too many people. Nonetheless, with wildfires continuing to rage, intensifying storms and a climate-change denier in the White House, Vermont remains focused on needed action.
In late September, Vermont legislators successfully overrode Governor Phil Scott’s shortsighted veto of a critical bill – the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) – thereby turning the state’s long-held climate action goals into requirements. The GWSA sets in place a planning and accountability framework to make strategic, pollution-reducing progress by 2025, 2030 and 2050; milestones similarly aligned with our neighbors in Maine, Massachusetts and New York, as well as nations participating in the Paris Climate Accord.
This foundational policy will help Vermonters move beyond drastically insufficient, incremental progress – which exacts high economic, equity and public health costs on all Vermonters – and roll up our sleeves to get to building a clean energy future and ensure we do that work well.
The law outlines a clear set of principles to guide this effort, offering a path to a more sustainable, strong economy. Specifically, it:
- Requires state-led, coordinated, thoughtful planning and action to reduce climate pollution and build more resilient communities. State government will be required to focus on this complex issue in a significant, integrated manner, ensuring progress and fostering the ability to draw upon the expertise and innovation of Vermont’s private sector in making this transition. This will be important to ensure that Vermont focuses on the tremendous economic opportunity in action, enabling us to make smart and strategic investments as we recover from Covid-19 and rebuild our economy, putting people to work in the climate innovation arena.
- Requires the climate planning process to prioritize and identify climate solutions that reduce energy burdens for rural and marginalized communities. These strategies will focus on developing climate-resilient infrastructure, help communities adapt to the realities of a warming world, and increase access for lower-income earners to more affordable, 21st century, clean-energy technologies.
- Recognizes the interconnection and opportunity in investing in Vermont’s strengths – including its farms and forests – to realize pollution reduction and climate resilience benefits. Vermont’s climate plan will capitalize on our existing assets like farms, forests and other rich natural resources in developing solutions for capturing and storing carbon.
To do this critical work, the law establishes a diverse, 23-member Climate Council and charges that Council with making recommendations, in the form of a Climate Action Plan, due in December 2021. The responsibility to advance the right suite of strategies to meet required targets and timelines, however, ultimately lies with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources. And, Vermont lawmakers – elected by and in service to their constituents – will continue to play a lead role in enacting big policy reforms and, critically, legislators will also maintain control of the state’s fiscal policy – crafting an annual budget, raising any potential new revenues, and more. This is, by the way, in contrast to the scare tactics of several opponents of this bill.
To ensure this work is done well and represents a broad cross section of key players and perspectives, the law requires the composition of four strategic subcommittees, focused on (1) resilience and adaptation, (2) mitigation strategies, (3) equity and justice, and (4) the role of our farms, forests and natural assets in this essential transition.
The Climate Council needs to be created and called to order this fall, so this new accountability framework is just getting underway.
And this fully focused, serious effort couldn’t come a moment too soon.
Recently, when discussing options for costumes with my nine-year-old, I couldn’t help but recall Halloween 2019; it was an oddly warm, intense rain storm that ended in a deluge of both water and tears. That storm caused massive flooding across the state and resulted in over $5 million in damages.
The reality is ongoing, insufficient climate action only exacerbates the high costs we are already paying and will continue to pay for a warming world. Those costs include diminished quality of life, deteriorating public health and lost economic opportunity – not to mention leaving young people and future generations a far greater financial burden to bear.
As we collectively wrestle with a confluence of crises, there is hope and opportunity in the new Global Warming Solutions Act. With this concerted, strategic focus, we can recover in new, innovative ways that center and build equity, sustainability and a strong, local, clean energy and climate-friendly economy.
Johanna Miller is the energy and climate program director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. Reach her at email@example.com.