Unpacking Vermont's Newest Climate Change Legislation

Sep 10, 2020

A bill requiring Vermont to significantly reduce its carbon emissions is now before Gov. Phil Scott. The House passed the Global Warming Solutions Act on Wednesday, sending it to the governor, where it faces a possible veto.

But the legislation passed by a margin that could override that veto.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, a Democratic representative from Bradford and one of the bill’s sponsors.

Henry Epp: First of all, since this bill was first introduced, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and you're back in session right now in part to deal with the budget for next year, which has faced a lot of uncertainty. So why move forward on this major piece of legislation addressing climate change right now, when the state has a number of other issues to grapple with?

Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas: The answer to that, that we've been talking about as we've been reaching out to Vermonters over the last year, to talk about moving forward with this bill has been, you know, the very clear data that we've seen from various scientific organizations that say we don't have time to waste.

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But the COVID-19 challenges really have uncovered a lot of the systemic inequalities that we notice in our world and have really uncovered a lot of vulnerabilities. And what is clear through that is that Vermont is not ready to withstand another Tropical Storm Irene. We know that we need to do everything that we can do to build resilience within our communities. And that is a really big part of this bill.

There's a lot of focus given to this climate council that will be formed, that will ask them to help our communities build resilience and help prepare for the future. And I think it’s going to be critical to get started on that right away.

If this passes, who will decide how emissions are reduced in the state? You mentioned a climate change council. Who makes up that council, that will decide what actions are taken?

So this council is made up of agency heads from a number of different state agencies – the usual ones that you could imagine would be involved in climate action, like natural resources and agriculture, commerce. But also, you know, human services, transportation, the public service department, public safety.

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It'll also be made up of a number of members of the business sector in different areas. So, people who work in electric utility distribution, people who are in the fuel sector, someone representing manufacturers, someone representing the clean energy sector. So there's going to be a broad range of expertise on this council and they will be charged with writing the plan that will help Vermont finally meet its emissions reduction goals.

The bill would allow citizens to sue the state of Vermont if it does not reach its emissions goals. Gov. Scott has raised some concerns about that. Couldn't the state end up being caught up in a lot of expensive litigation as a result of this measure?

There was a lot of thought given, as this bill was being crafted, to really make sure that we're not opening up to frivolous and long and complicated lawsuits, that that's really not the point. We don't have time to get caught up in the courts. We need to get back to work meeting our emission reduction goals.

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There was a lot of strategy put into making sure that we made it as clear as possible. And the only remedy that is available through the courts is to send the council back to the drawing board and write a better plan. So the question is: did we meet our reduction targets? If the answer is no, then the remedy is: go back to the drawing board and write a better plan.

There are going to be people who question why Vermont should act to reduce its emissions when we're such a small state and this is a global problem. So what's your message to Vermonters who are skeptical that cutting our emissions is a worthwhile thing to do right now?

Well, the first answer to that question is really that, while we see ourselves as being a very green state, our per capita emissions are the highest in our region and that should be troubling and should be a wakeup call in-and-of itself.

But the other reason why we should act really has to do with the fact that when we do act, we will be saving Vermonters money. When we get more homes fully weatherized, they are cheaper to heat, they're cheaper to cool, they're healthier to live in. And, by the way, we reduce emissions. And so saving Vermonters money really kind of should be the universal no-brainer.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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