By Marisa Keller, a member of 350VT’s Writing for Climate Justice group
Fifty-five towns in Vermont have now passed resolutions calling on the state to ban new fossil-fuel infrastructure. On March 15th, hundreds of Vermont youth joined their peers in more than 100 countries to strike from school and call for climate action. Within the Vermont legislature, the Climate Caucus — a semi-formal group of both representatives and senators — has 80 members this session. And yet no major climate-related legislation has been passed, or even voted on.
350 Vermont’s Citizen Advocates are working to change that. They’re a group of about 20 volunteers who have taken on the work of educating their legislators about the consequences of climate change and pushing them to take legislative action.
This session, 31 representatives have co-sponsored H.51, a state version of the Off Fossil Fuels (OFF) Act that has been introduced in the national legislature. H.51 would ban the construction of new large-scale fossil-fuel infrastructure in Vermont. A companion bill, S.66, has been introduced in the Senate.
Geoff Gardner is one of the citizen advocates working to get this bill passed. He’s been talking and writing letters to his senators and representatives and to the members of the energy committees.
The reception has been “sometimes OK, sometimes kind of discouraging,” he says. Some legislators are combative and challenging, some are helpful. Some say they are totally on board with climate action but then don’t do anything about it. Democratic leaders in the legislature have said they have other priorities this session.
“We have an energy system in this state that really makes less and less sense, given the climate situation,” Geoff says. “I haven’t seen that my legislators are willing to engage with those big, underlying problems.”
“That’s why OFF is so important,” he says, because the bill would bring about “a fundamental shift toward renewables” if it passed.
State Representative Mari Cordes, of Lincoln, is a cosponsor of H.51. She has also introduced a different bill, H.175, that would prohibit the use of eminent domain to commandeer private land for fossil-fuel infrastructure.
She says that she and the other members of the Climate Caucus “are actually quite alarmed about the lack of forward movement, and are ready to call for increased spending ASAP to address climate change.”
Recent votes on revenue raising, such as a bill to add funding to a state weatherization program, have been “largely on partisan lines,” she says, explaining that Republican legislators generally acknowledge climate change as an issue but “don’t want to raise revenue to address it.”
Mari feels that H.175, at least, is likely to pass, because it doesn’t require funding.
H.51 faces more opposition. Despite the support of chair Tim Briglin, the bill didn’t make it out of the House Energy and Technology Committee.
350 VT and other groups have sent a letter to Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, calling on them to hold a joint hearing on the issue at the end of the legislative session.
And on April 4th, Geoff will be part of a group delivering a petition to the Climate Caucus with more than 1,400 signatures in support of banning new fossil fuel infrastructure. Geoff says he was impressed by the comments many people added with their signatures. “It’s amazing how much people know,” he says. “They’re also … incredibly urgent about it.”
Even if H.51 doesn’t pass, it has been noticed. Vermont Gas Systems asked the Bristol selectboard to cancel an agreement about extending gas service to the town partly because of the bill: the company doesn’t want to commit to more pipelines while there’s a chance that such infrastructure might become illegal.
Meanwhile, the advocacy goes on. Geoff says that in his work with legislators, he’s found that the more they hear from their constituents, and the more they see popular support for an idea, the more likely they are to go along with it.
Still, it’s a long game. “I try not to have either expectations or a capacity for disappointment,” Geoff says of his advocacy work.
“I’ve put in a lot of time over the years to learn everything I can,” he adds. But he doesn’t think everyone needs to be an expert in order to agitate for climate action. “Everyone has their gifts,” he says, “and for some people that’s knowing a lot. … Some people are good at speaking. … These things only move if you have a large body of people.”
Mari says, “I’m incredibly proud of the movement building going on in Vermont to support and hold elected people accountable. We would not have any hope of facing climate change and needed resilience without them.”
On April 5th, the day after the citizen advocates deliver their petition to the Climate Caucus (add your name here!), more than 100 people will start out from Middlebury on 350VT’s Next Steps Climate Walk, which will culminate in a rally at the statehouse on April 9th in support of the OFF Act and other climate action. Interested in joining the walk or attending the rally? Learn more here.
Interested in becoming a citizen advocate? Contact Julie at firstname.lastname@example.org.