Vermont Engages with Paris Climate Talks

By Alessandria Schumacher

Although Vermont is over 3,000 miles from Paris, Vermonters are not letting the distance silence their voices on climate change action. Since the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference began in Paris last week, Vermonters have been engaged in many capacities. Some rallied locally, others went to the State House, and still others, including Governor Peter Shumlin, were invited to speak in Paris.

Right here in Middlebury, 55 to 60 people gathered in Triangle Park on Saturday, Nov. 28, just two days before the start of the Paris climate summit. People attended this rally from as far away as Montpelier and Waitsfield, hoping to send the message that people are watching and expecting results from the climate summit in Paris. They held signs with phrases such as “Middlebury Vermont Supports Paris Climate Talks” and “Climate Justice Now!”

One more elaborate sign read, “This pump temporarily closed because Exxon-Mobil lied about climate (#exxonknew).” The protestor was referring to the exposé this fall, when Exxon-Mobil intentionally funded climate change deniers and hid company research supporting climate change in the mid-1980s.

On Monday, Nov. 30, a coalition of environmental groups gathered at the State House in Montpelier to deliver 180 boxes—containing 25,241 postcards—from supporters of carbon tax in Vermont. Organizers of this event planned for it to coincide with the start of the Paris climate talks, seizing the international event as a catalyst for state-level climate action.

“Our thoughts are with the global leaders who are making important decisions for all of us. But we can’t leave all the work to them. We have to do our share also,” said Fran Putnam, the chairwoman of the Weybridge Energy Committee and a member of Energy Independent Vermont.

Last year, legislators in the House introduced “carbon tax” bills, proposing a tax on fossil fuels sold in Vermont, including gasoline, oil and natural gas.  The bill has met strong opposition from both sides of the aisle.

Republican Chairman David Sunderland believes that the carbon tax bill shows that Democrats in Vermont are “profoundly disconnected with the realities of struggling Vermonters.” Opponents of the tax also point out that a carbon tax will cost the consumer the same amount, regardless of income, and will not affect the producers of fossil fuels. The tax could raise gas prices by 88 cents over the next 10 years. Proponents of the tax insist that a carbon tax could mean lower sales tax on other items.

The proposed carbon tax bill calls for a tax on fossil fuels and the creation of an Energy Independence Fund, which would help subsidize home weatherization, solar panels and air source heat pumps. The program would also create jobs in the process.

On Dec. 3, about 150 people attended a debate on the carbon tax. The debate pitted Paul Burns, executive director of Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), and Professor John Erickson, from University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, against Rob Roper and John McClaughry, President and Vice President of the Ethan Allen Institute. The institute is “Vermont’s free-market public policy research and education organization,” according to their website.

Don Randall, President and CEO of Vermont Gas, issued a statement expressing support for climate action in Paris. He explained that increased use of natural gas in Vermont has cut carbon emissions.

“The decline in U.S. carbon emissions has been attributable largely to the displacement of higher-emitting fuels by natural gas,” said Randall. “Here at home, Vermont gas continues to bring the choice and opportunity of cleaner, more affordable natural gas to more Vermonters,” he said.

He concluded his statement by pledging to “reduce emissions, increase energy efficiency and expand alternatives such as renewable gas from landfills and dairies.”

Vermonters’ engagement with the Paris climate talks is not confined within state boundaries. Governor Shumlin himself is attending the Paris climate talks as a panelist to discuss Vermont’s renewable energy plans.

“The White House had reached out to us to talk about what states are doing to make a difference,” Shumlin said. “Vermont’s got a great story to tell.”

On Dec. 2, Shumlin was on a panel called “The Subnational (State and Provincial) Foundation for Action” hosted by the Georgetown Climate Center.  The panel included other leaders from places in North America that are creating clean energy policies, including Quebec, California and Washington.

Shela Liton and Senowa Mize-Fox, representatives of the Vermont Workers Center in Brattleboro and Burlington, are also attending the Paris climate talks. Linton and Mize-Fox are part of the 100-plus person delegation called “It Takes Roots to Weather the Storm,” a collection of grassroots leaders from dozens of communities in the U.S. and Canada that have been impacted by climate change.

“From Paris to Montpelier, we’re seeing politicians push false solutions to climate change like fracking and carbon trading,” Mize-Fox said in a news release. “We need to recognize the leadership and strategies coming from social movements at the grassroots, who understand the interconnections between racial, gender, economic and climate justice and are calling for system change, not climate change.”

Lastly, as the Paris climate summit comes to a close, Vermonters will fill five buses reserved by 350Vermont and head to Boston on Dec. 5. There they will participate in a rally “to call for bold climate solutions that create jobs, justice and climate action together,” Central Vermont Climate Action stated in a press release.

While the Paris climate talks are a good catalyst for international climate action, the negotiations will by no means result in a comprehensive solution or an end point.

“As the United Nations Climate Conference closes in Paris,” Central Vermont Climate Action’s press release states, “we know we will need to keep building a massive grassroots movement for real climate solutions to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.”

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