Energy & Environment

Walters: Phil Scott’s climate offensive: strong action or hot air?

While discussing climate change at his press conference last Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott said: “We are already a high-tax state. Let’s live within that.”  Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

John Walters is a VTDigger political columnist.

Gov. Phil Scott has taken a new, aggressive line on climate issues of late. He has positioned himself as the Man of Action, pursuing concrete policies while the Legislature concerns itself with taxes and deadlines. 

“What I proposed last year and this are actual action items,” Scott said at a press conference last Thursday. “Incentives for electric vehicles and energy storage, and money for electric vehicle charging stations. We’re actually doing something. We’re trying to shift the debate.” 

“Shift the debate,” that is, away from the narrative that the governor is slow-playing climate action while lawmakers are full speed ahead. 

The fact that Scott is facing the issue head-on is a sign that climate change is an effective political issue. Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, co-chair of the Legislature’s Climate Solutions Caucus, believes that’s the case. “I’m on the [Senate] Agriculture Committee,” Pearson said. “We went around the state talking to farmers. They’re feeling the effects of climate change already. That’s a core constituency for the governor.”

The ski industry is also sounding the alarm. Win Smith, president of Sugarbush Ski Resort, endorsed H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, in an essay posted on VTDigger last week. “We need to get in front of this crisis,” Smith wrote. “We cannot wait for slow policy and bureaucratic red tape. We must act on climate now.” 

Tom Torti, president of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, said much the same thing on VTDigger last August. “As we continue to experience global climate disruption, we cannot afford to take the slow approach to addressing these issues,” Torti wrote in an opinion piece.  

Sugarbush and Killington Resort have joined Protect Our Winters, a nonprofit that mobilizes the outdoor industry to fight climate change. And last year, East Montpelier’s Morse Farm shut down its cross-country ski operation due to lack of consistent snow cover.

So, key sectors of Vermont’s business community are engaged, and the governor seems to be responding. But is there real action behind Scott’s talk?

There is, but it’s limited by the governor’s resistance to new taxes or fees. “Let’s live within our means,” Scott said at last week’s press conference. “We are already a high-tax state. Let’s live within that.” 

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, is that the proper balance? “The incremental action Scott has proposed is a rounding error compared to the action we need to take,” said Ben Walsh, climate and energy program director for the Vermont Public Interest Group (VPIRG). 

Counterpoint from deputy secretary of the Agency Natural Resources, Peter Walke: “We don’t have that information,” said Walke. “We want to come together and craft a plan. We don’t know if we can do it within our means.” 

Walke also points to the latest data, which indicate Vermont is getting close to hitting its goal of a 26% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (from 2005 levels) by 2025. “Last time I did the math, we’d see a 22% reduction by 2026,” he said. “We’re moving in the right direction. I’m not saying we should stand pat; the 2030 and 2050 goals will be harder to achieve.” 

Peter Walke
Peter Walke, left, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, with Gov. Phil Scott. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

If true, Vermont is very close to hitting the 2025 target, which Scott committed to as part of the U.S. Climate Initiative — a multistate compact launched after President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accords. 

Also, Scott isn’t the only one with a record of deliberativeness. The Legislature seems determined to pass significant climate legislation this year, but that’s a change from previous sessions. “The governor gets an unfair rap on climate,” said Walke. “No climate bill has reached his desk that he’s rejected.” 

That may be true, but the governor has a lot of work to do if he wants to claim the role of Climate Fighter No. 1. And he’s not doing himself any favors with his rhetoric. On more than one occasion, he’s called Vermont’s greenhouse gas targets “arbitrary,” when they are nothing of the sort. “The Paris Climate Accords was one of the most heavily negotiated treaties of all time,” Walsh said. “[Scott] said he supports the accords, but now he says the goals are arbitrary?”

Scott has been heavily critical of H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, especially a provision that would allow citizens to sue the state for failing to hit climate targets. “I don’t want to open us up to lawsuits” that could divert resources from climate action, he has said. And last week, Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore raised eyebrows by calling for the “right to action” to be postponed until the year 2050.

Walke claims that the whole issue is overblown, because the administration’s own proposal includes a way to hold the state accountable. “Our plan would trigger automatic updates in the plan [if we fail to meet a target],” Walke said. “That would remove the need for litigation.”

Hmm. Is the governor familiar with his own administration’s proposal? If so, he could stop arguing about the cost of litigation. 

Finally, Scott has been critical of the Democratic/Progressive Statehouse majority for focusing on taxes and deadlines instead of making a solid plan. In a Jan. 31 appearance on VPR’s “Vermont Edition,” Scott characterized the Legislature’s approach as “no action at all.”

Walke, who may be a better salesperson for the administration’s climate approach than the governor himself, sought to minimize differences between the executive and legislative branches. He depicted the two sides as very close to agreement on the Global Warming Solutions Act, aside from the right to action. 

At times, Scott suffers from the GOP brand. National Republicans, by and large, are opposed to significant climate action — if they believe that climate change is real at all. As long as Vermont’s governor puts the “R” next to his name, and as long as his public statements throw shade on the “D’s” and “P’s,” his commitment to fighting climate change will be viewed with skepticism. 

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