Frustrations over racial equity simmer on the Vermont Climate Council

Vermont Climate Council members meet on Jan. 9. A dispute at the meeting laid bare a frustration over equity and inclusion on the council, which plays a key role in strategizing the state’s efforts to combat climate change. Screenshot

On Jan. 9, the Vermont Climate Council convened via Zoom for its first meeting of the new year. On the agenda: discuss the group’s annual report, due to the Legislature every year on Jan. 15.

But before even an hour had elapsed, the discussion had spiraled into a series of tense exchanges and accusations that white council members have ignored and tokenized BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and people of color — members, underscoring simmering frustrations over the council’s inclusion and direction. 

Judy Dow, an Indigenous educator and nonprofit director, told members at the meeting that her inclusion on a council subcommittee “feels totally like I was only there as a token.” 

“You can't only say you hear us,” Dow said. “You have to listen to our voices. This is getting out of hand with this committee.”

The Vermont Climate Council was born from Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act, which lawmakers passed in 2020. That law requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by set amounts at certain benchmarks over the next 30 years, with an ultimate goal of being 80% below the state’s 1990 emissions levels by 2050. 

The council, a 23-person body made up of state officials and representatives from nonprofits, municipalities and other stakeholder groups, was assigned the unenviable task of figuring out how best to do that. 

In late 2021, the council released a 273-page report, the Climate Action Plan, outlining more than 200 actions the state could take to cut emissions. 

The report divided state officials. One of its key recommendations, a clean heat standard, was at the center of a pitched legislative battle last year and could be on track for another this year.  

At first glance, however, the controversy at the Jan. 9 meeting was sparked by a seemingly innocuous decision. 

Burning biomass and smoldering frustration 

For nearly a year, a subgroup of the council has analyzed the state’s use of biomass, or wood and plant matter, for electricity. That is the fuel burned by Ryegate Power Station and McNeil Generating Station. 

Late last year, the Biomass Task Group drafted a slate of recommendations around the state’s use of biomass electricity. Those recommendations — which are intended to be an addendum to the Climate Action Plan — included advising against expansion of the Ryegate and McNeil power plants, and urged that “new electric-led generation biomass facilities in the State of Vermont should not be used.” 

But on Jan. 9, as the full council discussed the annual report, members decided to table those recommendations until the spring. 

The reason, council members said, was logistical, not ideological. As of Jan. 9, the council had three vacant seats — representing municipal governments, rural residents and the fuel sector — that were waiting to be appointed by the House Speaker.

Without those three representatives, all of whom may have particular experience and views on the question of biomass, the council decided to hold off on discussing the recommendations.

June Tierney, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Public Service and a council member, said at the Jan. 9 meeting that the question was one of “good hygiene in a public body.”

“If we can't get the process of inclusion right, we've got serious, serious problems,” Tierney said. “And so to have this kind of conversation without the full complement of councilors, to my mind is just something you don't do.” 

But Dow disagreed. Even without those three members, the council had a quorum, she noted. In fact, she said, legislators had told her that they had purposefully staggered council terms so that the body would be able to act — even with vacancies.

Dow viewed the inaction on biomass as part of a larger, ideological dispute in which council members — roughly a third of whom are state officials in Gov. Phil Scott’s administration — push an agenda focused on technological solutions to climate change, rather than tackling structural or cultural ones. That power dynamic, she said, shuts out and tokenizes people of color. 

“They’re polite enough to listen to you,” she said in an interview, “but they don't include your thoughts where it matters.”

‘Collective disappointment’

Dow is not the first to make those arguments. In an April 2021 letter to state officials, a coalition of advocates expressed concerns about the council’s operations. 

That letter, which was signed by representatives of Rights & Democracy Vermont, the Vermont Public Interest Law Group and the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, among others, noted a “lack of commitment on the part of the State to effectively engage the BIPOC community” and the "continued segregation of BIPOC leaders within advisory roles.”

“Because we have borne so much of the burden of injustice, the work of addressing our climate crisis should primarily center on the needs, experiences, and voices of our BIPOC and other socially marginalized communities,” the letter reads. 

In September 2022, the group sent a follow-up letter accusing state officials of failing to address input from BIPOC groups and failing to appropriately respond to threats against people of color. One unnamed individual had even withdrawn from a subcommittee in the face of the state’s tokenism, the letter said. 

“We must share our collective disappointment in the State’s failure to implement its stated commitments to center racial justice and equity,” the letter read. 

Ana Mejia, an advocate with Rights & Democracy and the Vermont Releaf Collective, a racial equity and environmental advocacy group, said that council members are well intentioned but have not lived up to their equity goals. 

“What I see is a bunch of people who are coming to the table, who think that they have all the solutions and they have all the expertise,” Mejia, one of the letter’s signatories, said in an interview. “And what I continuously find frustrating about these people — despite how well intentioned they are — I think that they never think to look around and see who's not at the table.”

Mejia said she considered joining a subcommittee of the council, but decided against it after she felt dismissed and ignored at a meeting.

“After that I was just like, it's clear that my voice here isn't really going to make a difference, and I'm just going to be frustrated,” she said. “And I have heard that same kind of sentiment from almost every other person that I've spoken to.”

‘A fair criticism’

Kristin Clouser, the chair of the council, referred comment to Jane Lazorchak, the director of the state’s Climate Action Office, which works closely with the Climate Council. 

In an interview, Lazorchak pointed out that council members include Harry Chen, the interim commissioner of the Vermont Department for Children and Families, and Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux, the Vermont state climatologist, both of whom are people of color. 

“I think that is a fair criticism, that the council doesn’t have more diverse representation,” she said. “It probably stems from our inability to connect with frontline and impacted communities. And certainly an inability to pay them fairly to participate in the work.” 

The council’s per diems pay $50 per meeting, each of which can last hours and involve intensive outside preparation. Lazorchak said that the council has a new facilitation contract that will allow it to pay members of the public to participate in discussions, and she noted that the council works with the Interagency Environmental Justice Committee. 

“I will say that the Climate Council has focused on this very much, in thinking about how we engage Vermonters in an ongoing conversation about climate change and solutions,” Lazorchak said. 

At the Jan. 9 meeting, members ultimately agreed to include the biomass recommendations in its annual report, but noted that the full council had not had a chance to consider them.  

Dupigny-Giroux, the state climatologist, said at that meeting that the tense exchanges were a positive sign, an indicator of “stuff that needed to get out.”

Council members need to “think a little bit deeply about how we can actually make sure that everybody's OK being at this table,” she said. “And (for) folks that are not at the table — how can we make the table more inviting?”

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Peter D'Auria

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