By Marisa D. Keller
Marisa is a freelance writer and editor and a member
of 350VT’s Writers for Climate Justice group.
Vermont’s biggest challenge in addressing climate change is not a lack of solutions; it’s a lack of capacity to implement those solutions. That was my takeaway from the January 4 meeting of the new Vermont Climate Council, which was formed as a result of the Global Warming Solutions Act passed by the Vermont legislature in 2020.
The Climate Council is tasked with writing a climate action plan to reduce Vermont’s greenhouse-gas emissions and build resiliency. The council has 23 members, including eight state agency officials, a climate change expert, a dairy farmer, a youth member, rural and municipal planners, and representatives of a broad range of business and nonprofit sectors. The council’s first two meetings, in November and December of 2020, included an inventory of Vermont’s greenhouse-gas emissions and a presentation on the impacts of climate change in Vermont.
The January 4 meeting featured a presentation on equity, an overview of existing programs to increase Vermont’s resiliency, and relevant information on Vermont’s natural working landscape (that is, farms, timberlands, and sugarbushes).
Jens Hilke, a conservation planner in the VT Fish & Wildlife Department, offered a glimpse at the planning and programs already in place to support conservation and resiliency. Vermont has, among many other plans, a Wildlife Action Plan, a Hazard Mitigation Plan, a Long-Range Transportation Plan, and of course the Comprehensive Energy Plan that calls for the state to run on 90 percent renewable energy by 2050.
“Everyone keeps looking around for new tools, as if we’re going to find a particularly great deal somewhere, as if we could stop climate change for just $20 a day. I don’t think that’s reasonable.” Hilke said. What Vermont needs to do, he said, is scale up implementation of existing plans, and increase interdepartmental collaboration — something that takes both more money and more humanpower.
The Current Status of Conservation in Vermont
Recent conservation efforts have focused on two crucial elements of our ecosystems. The first is wetlands, which store a high level of carbon and serve as vital flood mitigation, among other functions essential to a healthy ecosystem. The other element is a connected forest system that allows for the movement of animal populations from one area to another — a key to supporting biodiversity, especially as the climate changes.
Programs such as the Wetland Easement Program, The Forest Legacy Program, and the Vermont Housing Conservation Board all support this work, and so far 34 percent of land considered “highest priority” has been permanently conserved, with another 9 percent conserved at least temporarily through Vermont’s Current Use program.
Climate mitigation and adaption strategies are also in play in the agriculture sector. Thirty-five thousand acres of farmland employ some sort of conservation practices, up from just over 5,000 acres in 2016. Those practices include rotational grazing, cover cropping, and no-till methods.
Despite the abundance of green in Vermont, the state still produces approximately twice as much carbon as it sequesters. While we can increase our sequestration capacities to a certain extent, work to reduce emissions will be essential as well.
The Gap Between Planning and Implementation
Promoting compact development and limiting sprawl is essential to conservation and resilience, as well as reducing emissions from transportation and improving quality of life. Herein lies one of the biggest challenges in bringing about an effective climate response: Much of the planning that happens in the state departments must be implemented by towns. Much of that work is done by volunteer committees working with limited, already-strained budgets.
Acts such as the Forest Integrity Act require towns to create plans for forest conservation but don’t require subsequent regulations, such as regulations against subdivision, that would make a real difference in forest conservation. Regional planning commissions serve as a resource and a key link between statewide planning and local implementation, but they too are underfunded.
Meanwhile, the state’s transportation infrastructure is being slowly upgraded to new standards passed in 2015. The Vermont Department of Transportation works with the Agency of Natural Resources to plan and build bridges and culverts that facilitate wildlife movement and mitigate flooding and erosion during extreme weather events. The problem is, Hilke said, that we are years behind where we need to be in completing these improvements.
Across the board, Vermont’s systems of government need significant bolstering in order to be able to realize our climate-action priorities.
Creating Equitable Solutions
Another piece of the climate action puzzle that the council considered on January 4 was the issue of equity. Vermont racial equity director Xusana Davis, gave a brief overview of some of the physical realities of climate-related inequity, both in Vermont and around the country. Half the Latinx population of the United States lives in California, Texas, and Florida, the three states most affected by climate change, and Latinx people are more likely to work in fields disrupted by climate change; eighty percent of farmworkers are Latinx.
In Vermont, Black, Indigenous, and people of color make up a small percentage of the total population, but it is also the fastest-growing demographic. And at the same time, BIPOC folks are less likely to own their own homes, more likely to suffer from depression, and more likely to be imprisoned.
Davis also showed the discriminatory ways that people of color are presented in the media, as well as inequities in the construction of government policy. Who feels ownership of government processes? An equitable process makes sure that all who are affected by an issue have ownership of the conversation around solutions.
Davis also emphasized the importance of understanding root causes. Examining root causes can illuminate connections between seemingly unrelated issues, and make effective solutions more obvious. She drew connections between zoning regulations and the existence of “food deserts” where nutritious food is scarce, and the subsequent costs of obesity to the well-being of society as a whole.
For any given solution, Davis said, look at who benefits, and who bears the cost. She cautioned against programs like carbon trading that don’t change the underlying situation and the disproportionate suffering of people of color and low-income people.
At the end of the equity presentation, one council member asked Davis’s advice on how to balance the importance of equity and engaging marginalized populations, on the one hand, with the urgency of the council’s task on the other — the deadline for the climate action plan is December 1, 2021. After giving a few basic suggestions to promote accessibility and engagement, Davis added:
“I’m going to say it, and you’re going to say that’s not an option, but reconsider: Change the deadline. … If slowing down the process to perfect it will lead to equitable policy, then do that, because that’s more important.”
The Vermont Climate Council’s next regular meeting takes place on January 25 at 8:30 a.m., and is open to all members of the public. Links to meetings, agendas, meeting minutes, and slides from all presentations, as well as council member bios, are available here.