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Julie Moore: We Need Real Solutions on Climate

September 17, 2020

By Julie Moore, Secretary, Agency of Natural Resources

The Legislature’s Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) has been a centerpiece of the legislative session. It has become something of a rallying cry, an outlet even, for our collective concern and well-founded worry about our changing climate. Legislators have presented this bill as solving the climate crisis. Sadly, the bill provides little in the way of solutions.

Personally, the impacts of the changing climate have never been more front-of-mind, and I expect that is true for many Vermonters. The news is filled with examples, from the wildfires raging out west, to articles about the accelerated melting of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, to record numbers of tropical cyclones.

There are also examples closer to home. Vermont is very “climate sensitive,” with some of the things that we are most famous for – maple sugaring and skiing chief among them – inextricably tied to our climate. And nearly every hunter, gardener or hiker has their own example of something they have seen change.

The stated purpose of the GWSA is to create a system through which ordinary Vermonters can use the legal system to compel their state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and to create a framework to establish strategies to mitigate climate risks and build resiliency to climate change. These are incredibly important goals and valuable work.

But while the GWSA appears to reflect the sense of urgency so many of us feel, the actual process established is unwieldy and does not provide my agency – the Agency of Natural Resources – with the tools needed to accomplish the work.

In fact, the most significant thing the bill does is to remove from lawmakers and the Governor the responsibility to decide how we will address – and pay for – this greatest challenge of our time. The actual solutions necessary will be complicated, difficult, and require input from many voices - none more important than the people of Vermont. Cutting the elected representatives of the people out of the process violates the most fundamental principles of our democracy. That is one of the principle reasons the Governor vetoed this bill. 

Instead, the GWSA sets up a 23-person Climate Council, designed to represent a wide range of interests and sectors that are either being directly impacted by a changing climate or will bear significant responsibility in efforts to reduce emissions, or both. What the Council is short on is direct expertise. It includes a representative of rural communities, one from small businesses, one from the fuel sector, one from the municipal sector, and these representatives will be asked to take on an enormous amount of work between now and December 2021.

The Legislature has asked the Council to develop a plan to comprehensively reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions, providing only a staff of three, a budget of $200,000 and about 15 months to complete the work. This mismatch between the work needed to address our changing climate and the resources provided by the Legislature might be too much, even with the proper expertise on the panel.

Equally concerning, is the decision by the Legislature to remove themselves and their successors from having to approve or disapprove what this un-elected council comes up with. That is a failure by lawmakers to do the job they are elected to do.

My team spent considerable time engaging with Legislative leaders over the last year in an effort to find a more workable approach to achieving our shared climate goals. Unfortunately, our input on how the work might be structured to make it more functional was largely ignored. Intentionally or not, the GWSA sets the State up to fail. And when we fail, the only solutions available will be litigation, delay, and ultimately actions which rely heavily on potentially costly regulatory tools.

The moral imperative to do our piece in driving down greenhouse gas emissions is more real and more urgent than it has ever been. We need to accelerate our actions. We need to do so now. And we share the Legislature’s commitment to this work. But it is not enough simply to act. Our actions need to be solutions-oriented. They need to be intentional and effective and certain and sufficient. Unfortunately, the GWSA doesn’t offer much in this regard.