Members of the Vermont Climate Council are seeking opinions from the public as they hurry to draft the state’s first-ever Climate Action Plan — a guide toward swift cuts in emissions and preparing the state for climate change impacts.
A slate of public meetings, scheduled from late September through early October, began Tuesday evening with a gathering of about 30 people at Elmore State Park. Among them were local residents, state officials, and people working with and alongside the climate council.
Vermont’s Global Warming Solutions Act, passed in 2020, legally requires the state to reduce emissions — fast.
By 2025, the state must reduce climate pollution to 26% below 2005 levels. By 2030, nine years from now, Vermont must cut emissions in half, and the climate council is figuring out how the state would do it.
It must also suggest steps to keep Vermonters safe from the impacts of climate change.
The plan will likely affect most Vermonters. A few preliminary ideas include broad-scale electrification, weatherization, changes in farming practices and conserving 55,000 acres per year until 2030.
The jury’s still out on whether those changes will take the form of incentives or regulation — likely a mixture of both — but the council’s assignment is to find cost-effective ways to make them happen.
Against a backdrop of reddening leaves on the mountains surrounding 219-acre Lake Elmore, people told the council about their concerns about the present and future risks of climate change. They do not want to lose Vermont’s four distinct seasons or the optimal conditions for maple sugaring, for example. Less snow has already affected the quality of skiing, a sport dear to many in the state and a major tourism driver.
Council members must draft an initial plan by Dec.1, at which point it will also be adopted by the state. Some legislators have raised questions about the public’s ability to comment on the plan immediately after it’s adopted, when the Legislature will need to begin taking action on its recommendations.
Jane Lazorchak, project director for the Global Warming Solutions Act, said the council will engage the public now, then build a plan based on expertise from the council and comments from Vermonters. During next year’s legislative session, actions will likely center on the most time-sensitive, emission-reduction pieces of the plan.
The plan must be updated every four years, but council members plan to revise it early next year after hearing feedback, she said.
“I think that we have to start to put those changes in place as soon as possible, but I think the comprehensive nature of what climate action looks like in the state is extremely iterative,” Lazorchak said. “It leaves a lot of room for us to still be considering what the ultimate priorities are, even at the same time as we’re moving on a small batch of components.”
Social bonds and community woodpiles
On Tuesday, rather than conducting a lecture-style presentation on the draft plans, leaders asked members of the public to form small groups at picnic tables to discuss the issues. The council has contracted with Rise Consulting and Climate Access to lead public engagement efforts.
In a short speech at the beginning of the event, Sarika Tandon, principal and founder of Rise Consulting, warned of predicted changes. She spoke of more flooding, more invasive species and impacts on the sugaring industry.
When her 7-year-old son reaches retirement age, she said, “if we don’t take action, Vermont will feel similar to northwest Georgia, with more than 17 days a year exceeding 95 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Handed packets of information about the council’s draft plans and divided into groups, attendees raised myriad questions and issues. How, for example, does Vermont plan to maintain food security? How will the state house people who move from areas affected by wildfire and drought? How will everyone gain equal protection from the impacts of climate change?
Some discussions focused on missing elements of the plan. When consultant Cara Pike, with Climate Access, asked people what they thought, members of one group said they were looking for more in-state renewable electricity generation, more access to agricultural land for people who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and more innovative public transportation.
Another group’s idea, generating more “social capital,” earned audible murmurs of approval from the rest of the crowd.
“Sharing stuff,” the group’s spokesperson said. “Potlucks came up. Community woodpiles came up. The idea that having strong social bonds within a community makes your community more resilient and more able to adapt to change.”
Once the consultants have gathered comments from the public, they will present them to the climate council.
Lazorchak chatted with people at the gathering throughout the night. Later, she said the event made her feel “inspired and appreciative of people taking time to come out.”
“I still worry that there are people out there that have varying opinions,” she told VTDigger. “How we get those people to really engage proactively is always a challenge.”
She said more meetings will likely be scheduled at fairs and trade shows to find Vermonters who may not know about the council’s efforts.
Members of the public can review all of the council’s materials on its website and are encouraged to fill out a survey to give the council more information about the public’s concerns and priorities.
Lazorchak called the council’s task — completing a comprehensive, transformative, equitable plan by Dec. 1 — a “monumental hurdle.” Still, she said, members of the climate council are committed to incorporating public comment at events that will occur less than two months before their deadline.
“I’ve heard loud and clear that [members of the climate council] really want the public engagement to test what they are thinking about and ensure that they’re on the right path,” Lazorchak said.
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