Climate Caucus eyes ambitious agenda

Rev. Kathleen Clark, pastor of the Federated Church of East Arlington, opens a public meeting on potential climate change-related legislation with state lawmakers, from left, Sen. Brian Campion, Rep. David Durfee, Rep. Kathleen James and Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas.

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EAST ARLINGTON — Members of the Vermont Legislature's Climate Solutions Caucus briefed the public on their legislative priorities for next year at a well-attended event Wednesday night at the town's Federated Church.

State Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, who co-chairs the nonpartisan caucus, joined lawmakers who represent local districts — Rep. Kathleen James, Rep. David Durfee and Sen. Brian Campion — to discuss the group's set of interests for the upcoming legislative session.

The caucus supports the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act, modeled after similar laws in New York and other states, which essentially would change state goals for greenhouse-gas emissions into requirements. State data indicate that, as of 2015, emissions in Vermont were about 16 percent above 1990 levels. A law passed more than a decade ago calls for a 50 percent reduction of emissions from those 1990 levels by 2028, a goal that it now appears will not be met.

A version of the bill introduced earlier this year in the Vermont House directs the Secretary of the Agency of Natural to develop rules to achieve a mandatory, statewide reduction of emissions by 50 percent by January 1, 2035.

"We know that we need some form of accountability," said Copeland-Hanzas. "It is a strategy to focus every single state agency on cutting pollution."

The caucus also wants to make sure that Vermont, as a jurisdiction participating in the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a coalition of Northeast and mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia, joins a regional cap-and-invest system that would require transportation fuel suppliers to buy carbon allowances, proceeds from which states could use to subsidize electric vehicles, public transit, or other means of reducing demand for fossil fuels. A draft memorandum of understanding related to the proposed system is expected to be released next month, according to the initiative's website.

The other prongs of the caucus's platform relate to workforce training in weatherization practices for people in real-estate-related fields and supporting more in-state generation of renewable energy.

The caucus has 83 members in the Vermont House and Senate and holds weekly meetings that are open to the public when the legislature is in session, James said. Work groups met over the summer to develop policy recommendations that informed the platform the group is now sharing across the state through a series of public events.

An "experiment of the states"

In addition to outlining their agenda, the four lawmakers fielded questions and comments from meeting attendees on a wide range of climate change-related topics, including electric vehicles, solar arrays, hydroelectric power and regenerative soil practices.

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Responding to a question about the cost of inaction on climate change, Copeland-Hanzas said Vermont reducing its emissions would "give other states who have larger emissions problems ... an idea of how to do it."

"We don't have leadership at the federal level," she said, "and so this is an experiment of the states right now."

Remarks from the audience seated in the church's pews did not reflect unequivocal support for the group's efforts, though one exchange made it apparent that many attendees already had bought in to the idea of reducing their fossil-fuel dependence.

When a Sandgate woman questioned electric vehicles' efficacy in cold weather, Copeland-Hanzas asked attendees to raise their hands if they owned a hybrid or all-electric vehicle; a dozen or so hands went up for each category. "So you've got a lot of neighbors that you can ask about how their electric vehicle is working for them," she said.

A study by AAA released last winter found that electric vehicles' average driving range is reduced by more than a third when their heating systems are engaged and the outside temperature is 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The not-for-profit organization recommended that electric-vehicle drivers take certain precautions to account for the temporary range reductions but that they "shouldn't be discouraged" by the findings.

Campion, after an audience member said he was "dismayed" to see the proliferation of solar farms and likened them to billboards, said he supported steering such installations toward sites like rooftops and brownfields but that he is "personally willing to sacrifice a view" to help address what he described as a crisis.

Edward Cameron, of Manchester, a specialist on climate change, encouraged lawmakers to adopt a messaging strategy that highlights the opportunities inherent in moving toward "a low-carbon, climate-resilient and inclusive economy" that could bring investment and jobs to the state.

"I think in some of the skeptical questions you've had from people tonight, you can hear a reservoir of fear and ... pain," Cameron said. "The good news is, we have a great story to tell about the trillions of dollars that are being invested all around the world over the next decade to create a low-carbon economy," he continued, and "that story has to come out far more than is currently the case."

Given Vermont's population, the state "cannot contribute to decarbonization globally unless you think big and think with imagination and contribute to what's going on elsewhere," Cameron said. "If you do those things, you can have a real impact, but if you don't, what you're going to get is pushback from people saying, 'I'm struggling with the bills; why are you asking me for more sacrifice?'"

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