This commentary is by Julie Moore, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.
Disagreement in politics and over policies is not disrespect. In fact, disagreement between the public and policymakers or the legislative and executive branches can provide opportunities for healthy debate, essential to illuminating problems and honing solutions.
Sometimes, disagreements are less about the problem facing Vermonters and more about how to solve the issue. Climate action, and specifically the Clean Heat Standard, is a good example of this common tension.
Scientists have established an irrefutable link between rising levels of greenhouse gases in the environment and increasingly erratic weather patterns. The July 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that we are facing “increasingly severe, interconnected and often irreversible impacts of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human systems.”
Moreover, 97% of climate scientists have concluded not only that global warming is happening, but that it is primarily human-caused. And a February 2022 Vermont Public poll found 79% of Vermonters think climate change will impact life in Vermont the next 30 years.
In other words, most climate scientists, Vermonters and Vermont public officials agree climate change is real and we need to act.
Although the climate problem is widely accepted, climate action remains enormously complex, with many interconnected dilemmas. We know we need to decarbonize to reduce the inevitable impacts of a changing climate on the quality of life of future generations. Differences arise, however, in the development and implementation of policies and programs that achieve this goal and strike a balance — successfully addressing climate change in a fair, efficient and cost-effective way.
While grateful that we agree on so much, I am worried that the building feelings of inevitability and despair are pushing some to act without deliberation. There are real uncertainties about how we should make the transition from today, where more than 70% of Vermonters rely on fossil fuels to heat their homes.
Addressing whether the electrical grid can handle the increased load, how Vermonters stay warm when the power goes out, and how we support low- and middle-income Vermonters in affording the transition are vital parts of this dialogue as we work toward an all-renewable future.
I am concerned the desire to do something, anything, is causing some to overlook or ignore the unknowns related to the Clean Heat Standard. Hard questions can and must be asked without being viewed as opposition to progress.
The reality is, if difficult and expensive mandates are enacted without ensuring they will effectively and efficiently address the problem they purport to solve, we risk not only wasting resources but also squandering the support of those who are paying.
My agency is in the throes of the work to answer some hard questions about policy approaches that will support affordable, climate-friendly home heat alternatives. With the legislative session now underway and climate action front of mind for many, there will be reluctance to wait for this work to be completed. A sense of urgency is amplifying calls to move swiftly to enact far-reaching policies and programs without any real understanding of whether they are effective and how they will impact Vermonters.
We need to remain mindful that, even with a shared passion, there is a line between brave and imprudent in how we approach climate action. And that even when there is broad agreement that something needs to happen, we should not settle for anything at any cost.
Good public policy requires hard conversations and difficult choices about how to achieve a decarbonized Vermont successfully, fairly and efficiently.