State Rep. Mollie Burke: Climate change and the Vermont economy

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In early March bare ground showed through patches of snow. February days were too warm, with a number of snowstorms ending with rain here in the Connecticut River valley. More recently, nor'easters have redeemed the season to some extent. As an avid Nordic skier I welcome a bit more winter, but lament the lack of its reliability, becoming reliably jumbled and erratic. Swings of temperature are now the norm. This year I missed the quiet and calm of a deep January blizzard, the blue shadows of trees on bright February snow cover. Despite the understanding that weather and climate do not always correlate, I know that all is not well with the weather, and that our changing climate is to blame (a belief co-incidentally held by 98 percent of the world's scientists).

And while I feel a deep personal loss, I also worry about the impact on the Vermont economy, so dependent on the ski industry. Our small stated relies heavily on tourist dollars to fund the basic functions of government. As a Vermont state legislator, I feel especially tuned to this economic reality. A bad ski season (like this year's February rains) makes a big difference in our revenues, and carries the possibility of cuts in all the services we provide. The same holds true for foliage season, and maple sugaring time.

When I was elected to the legislature nearly 10 years ago one of my highest priorities was to address the issue of climate change. I had been concerned about this for a number of years. I believed I would be able to promote policies to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. Once elected, I requested to serve on the Transportation Committee, since 47 percent of Vermont's greenhouse gases come from the transportation sector.

The Vermont State Comprehensive Energy Plan of 2016 laid out a vision for achieving 90 percent renewable energy by 2050 with markers and strategies in the various sectors.

Priorities of both the Shumlin and Scott administrations show a commitment to public transit, rail, and bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure and other programs. I sponsored legislation restricting vehicle idling and promoting bike/ped measures. Despite these initiatives and many others, Vermont's greenhouse gases actually went up 4 percent over the 1990 baseline in 2013 and continue to increase. This is not only discouraging, but, more to the point, it is threatening to our economy, our culture, and our general well-being. Seeing the need to ramp up our effort I, and a number of other legislators, started looking into carbon pricing as a market-based solution to cutting emissions, a strategy that has been successfully implemented in British Columbia and a number of European countries.

During the 2017 session I sponsored legislation for a comprehensive study of carbon pricing and cap-and- trade policies. A group of environmental advocates, business leaders, and legislators started working on a carbon pricing plan that would be revenue-neutral, and, most importantly, the plan would not adversely affect low-income and rural Vermonters. The result is the ESSEX Plan, an acronym for "Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy Exchange." It would impose a gradually rising fee on fossil fuels, while significantly lowering electric rates for all customers, with additional rebates for low and moderate income and rural citizens. This plan has been introduced into the legislature as a bill, H.791, and though it has no chance of passing the legislature this session, it is an exciting step forward.

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In 2017, Gov. Scott established the Vermont Climate Action Commission.

The charge was to draft an action plan to reach Vermont's renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals.

The commission held a number of public outreach sessions where they heard strong advocacy for some form of carbon pricing. So it was not surprising that one of the five recommendations of the commission (supported by 20 of the 21 members) was "to study all regulatory and market de-carbonization mechanisms."

One billion dollars leave our state every year in fossil fuel purchases, and winter rains are becoming the norm. A group of conservative Reagan and Bush era luminaries including James Baker, Henry Paulson, and George Schultz have recognized the need for action on a warming climate and are advocating for carbon pricing as a conservative, market-based strategy. Their advocacy could provide some ideological cover for our Republican governor, who exhibited bold leadership in establishing the commission but who has pulled back a bit on the need to study de-carbonization.

A number of legislators are carrying the Climate Commission recommendations forward, working to ensure that money for a study of carbon pricing, including the ESSEX Plan, will get incorporated into this year's appropriations bill. It's a modest step forward. We know that Vermont alone cannot address this crisis. It requires an "all in" approach. But we can step in, joining other countries and states that are doing so, and setting an example for others. It's the right and courageous thing to do.

State Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Windham 2-2, serves on the House Transportation Committee. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Brattleboro Reformer.


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