Vermont is “nowhere near” meeting goals set in law and policy to stem the state’s contribution to global climate change, members of the governor’s climate change commission heard at their first meeting Tuesday.
Moreover, President Donald Trump has made it uncertain whether the Environmental Protection Agency will continue to have and make available key tools and data sources needed for Vermonters to address global climate change, task force members were told.
“We’re nowhere near achieving the type of (greenhouse gas) reductions we need to reach our goals,” said Jeff Merrell, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s air quality planning section chief and a speaker at the task force meeting.
Not much is already in place to dramatically change that outlook, Merrell said. It will be the task force’s responsibility to come up with solutions, according to the executive order Gov. Phil Scott signed last month to form the group.
Those solutions must add to the profit for Vermont businesses, while making the state more affordable, Scott’s executive order states. The task force must “engage all Vermonters” while coming up with these solutions, according to the executive order. The task force must also, according to the executive order, provide ways for every Vermonter to reduce his or her carbon dioxide pollution while simultaneously saving money.
The task force must also ensure that solutions they propose do not “negatively impact the other goals and values of the state,” said Peter Walke, the Agency of Natural Resources’ deputy secretary, and the chairman of the commission.
To aid in this effort, Scott says, the commission can form a technical advisory group, composed of experts who could be relied upon by the commission to provide “expertise and analysis of technical issues,” according to his order.
But before the commission’s first meeting, Scott appointed two co-chairs to the technical advisory group.
The first, Kevin Jones, is a professor of energy technology and policy at Vermont Law School. Jones holds a Ph.D. from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, and a science degree from UVM.
The other co-chair of the technical advisory group, Annette Smith, said “no comment” when asked what qualifications she holds for the position. Smith has said that she earned a history degree from Vassar College.
Smith’s approach to technical subjects diverges from that of many established experts.
Smith, who runs Vermonters for a Clean Environment, has dismissed the value of peer review as a way to establish the validity of scientific claims, and said she prefers “real-world, anecdotal, on-the-ground” evidence to support her beliefs.
Smith’s beliefs have included the belief that airplane “chemtrails” (a term used to describe airplane contrails by people who believe the contrails’ water vapor is actually chemical or biological agents) are responsible for “dimming the sun” and altering the Earth’s climate, as she stated on a comment on the VTDigger.org website in 2014.
Smith has also said that sound produced by wind turbines causes cardiac illness, and a range of other health disorders. This view counters findings last year by the Vermont commissioner of health, who said no scientific research has established a causal link between the sound of wind turbines and any physiological human harms.
Smith’s views on wind-turbine sound also conflict with findings from numerous large-scale studies commissioned by various governments, including Massachusetts and Canada. Smith in May accused the Canadian government of falsifying a 2012 report that found no causal connection between human ailments and wind turbine noise.
Smith is, however, the state’s most prominent opponent of wind energy, and Scott ran for governor on a promise to oppose large-scale wind generation projects.
One member of the governor’s commission took issue with the selection of Smith to the Technical Advisory Group.
“The Scott Administration naming chairs, without a Commission conversation about the charge of the TAG, the credible experts that should comprise it — no less chair it — calls into question the independence, transparency and, ultimately, the integrity of the Commission,” said Vermont Natural Resources Council Energy & Climate Program Director Johanna Miller — a member of the commission.
“It’s disappointing and disturbing,” Miller said by email. “We asked for this Commission, and we want it to succeed. Without a fresh start – revisiting this preemptive decision at the first Commission meeting – I fear it’s destined for failure.”
Walke acknowledged this seeming disparity between the technical advisory group’s title and its co-chair.
“I know it’s been the source of some consternation,” he said, and during the meeting said nothing more on the subject.
Should the commission succeed in bringing Vermont’s greenhouse emissions in line with the state’s statutory goals, it will have accomplished an enormous task — dramatically reducing greenhouse emissions while benefitting Vermonters in numerous other ways.
Evidence shows that such a change is hard to achieve. The most recent data available, from a report the ANR published in July, shows that the state’s greenhouse gas emissions have remained more or less steady for the past 25 years.
Members of the commission said they understood the significance of the task they faced.
“I think we’re at a transformative moment in world history, a critical moment,” said Paul Costello, executive director at the Vermont Council on Rural Development, and the commission’s co-chair.
“The historical imperative we face is the most important one we face as a species,” Costello said at the meeting’s close. “We’ve got some hard work to do.”
The commission must deliver to Scott’s desk by the beginning of 2018 three recommendations that he can immediately act upon, Costello said, and the commission must by next July write a report with specific long-term policy and planning recommendations.
The commission will conduct four public meetings to suss out Vermonters’ feelings on the topic of global climate change, and to hear what potential suggestions they might have.
A tentative schedule of these meetings puts one in St. Johnsbury on Sept.14, another in Manchester on Sept. 21, another in St. Albans on Sept. 28, and a fourth in Springfield or nearby on Oct. 5.
The commission itself will meet, members said, on the second Thursday of every month — Oct. 12, Nov. 9 and Dec. 14 to begin with.
Walke said he’d aim to create a website soon where Vermonters would be able to submit comments on what the commission is hoping to achieve.