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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Despite Call To Act, Little Progress On Climate Change, Thermal Efficiency

Toby Talbot

Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislative leaders came into the recent session promising to make combating climate change a top priority.

Lawmakers and the governor said a warming world was the defining crisis of our time. They focused on an effort to make homes more energy efficient.

But the reality has not lived up to the rhetoric.

Days before the Legislature adjourned, the planet hit an historic milestone. The level of carbon dioxide – the most important greenhouse gas – reached 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, a concentration of the heat-trapping gas not seen in at least 3 million years.

The news reinforced the warnings that climate activist Bill McKibben delivered during a statehouse speech in January.

“Taken in total, this is the biggest challenge by far that humans have ever faced and we must do absolutely everything we can to stop it,” he said.

McKibben had two pieces of advice for Vermont lawmakers. First, defeat a proposed moratorium on large wind projects.

And second, go all in on what’s called “thermal efficiency” – an expanded effort to make buildings use less fossil fuel through insulation and energy retrofits.

“It’s high time that Vermonters stopped heating the outdoors. Putting in insulation will create jobs and it will save low and middle income Vermonters serious money,” he said. “And it’s obvious good policy even absent the crisis climate. I hope that you’ll make it a priority and that you pay for it in a logical way.’

Gov. Shumlin’s plan to pay for thermal efficiency may have seemed logical to his administration, but it didn’t fly in the statehouse. He proposed a tax on break-open tickets – the lottery-style games sold at bars and service clubs. The idea flopped because lawmakers didn’t want to hurt their local American Legion, and because legislative fiscal analysts gave a much lower estimate of the amount that could be raised.

With no revenue source, the thermal efficiency effort died. The failure deeply disappoints Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, the chairman of the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“When McKibben was here, and you heard the governor speak in the beginning and when you heard the speaker speak in the beginning (saying) ‘this is the serious issue that is facing everybody.’ Well, that was the height of everything,” Klein said.

A state task force has estimated that Vermont needs about $27 million to retrofit 80,000 homes by 2020. At current funding levels, the state will miss that goal by about a half.

Rep. Margaret Cheney, D-Norwich, points out the Legislature did pass a bill that tells state regulators to consider expanding thermal efficiency efforts.

“Unfortunately,” she said. “No one could find a funding source that everyone could agree on. It (the bill) doesn’t link it now to our climate change efforts, but at least we do take the first steps to heating our homes better.”

Gov. Shumlin said he’s disappointed the efficiency program didn’t get more money. But he also underscored his opposition to new broad-based taxes as a way to pay for it, such as a levy on heating fuels.

“Therefore you have to find ways to use existing money better, and that’s always difficult,” he said..

This is not the first time the state has disappointed energy and climate activists in efforts to improve home efficiency. Two years ago, Blair Hamilton, the late co-founder of Efficiency Vermont, gave a talk on reaching “zero-carbon” in the Vermont building sector. The second slide of his presentation was titled: “Vermont Climate Goals: 20 Years of Aiming Low and Achieving Lower.

The thermal efficiency issue will be back next year. In his farewell address at the end of the session, House Speaker Shap Smith said lawmakers have much more to do on climate change.

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