You’ve probably heard a lot about the personal actions we can all take to help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. Bike to work more. Stop eating meat. Turn off your lights. Sound familiar? I may be jaded, but in my experience, individual actions alone, however gratifying, will be insufficient to get where we need to go. To combat climate change in Vermont, as globally, we need real policy changes—and now.
The good news is, with federal dollars pledged to improving infrastructure and growing clean energy, Vermont has a big head start in fighting climate change, recovering from Covid-19, and building a better future for everyone. Vermont’s own Climate Council is already hard at work crafting the plan to turn climate opportunities into reality. With a Climate Action Plan tailored to the Green Mountain State, Vermont can direct federal funds where they have the most impact and create the most benefits for Vermonters and their families.
The Climate Council was created last year as part of the Global Warming Solutions Act. Its members are local experts, including a dairy farmer, a renewable energy developer, a small business owner, and others. This group will draw on the knowledge of further experts — for instance looking to Black, Indigenous, and other historically marginalized communities to shape equitable solutions — and solicit feedback from Vermonters across the state.
In building this plan, the Council can seize the many affordable and effective climate solutions already in existence. For instance, Vermont’s largest source of polluting emissions comes from our cars and trucks. Expanding incentives to help families and businesses switch to electric vehicles, while offering free ride-sharing programs in rural communities, can ensure everyone has access to the things they need without increasing pollution.
Lower emissions also help Vermonters breathe easier — both literally and figuratively. Replacing old gas guzzlers with electric cars improves local air quality and saves car owners money on maintenance and gas. Providing a range of transportation options tailored to communities’ needs can allow folks young and old to live comfortably without needing a car at all.
While we rethink our gas guzzlers, we can also retool our roadways. Vermont doesn’t need more massive, paved highways carving through our neighborhoods and our state. Instead of building new highway lanes and exits as contemplated for Interstate 89, we can redirect those efforts towards crafting walkable communities. We can build parks and other places for people to gather and use sidewalks and trails to get there. This lets our neighborhoods cater to the needs of people — not cars — and improves our health, our wellbeing, and our climate.
Weatherizing more homes and helping people switch to using cleaner, electric heat pumps is yet another way we know that will slash climate pollution while improving people’s lives. Weather-tight homes are both more comfortable to live in and save folks money on their energy bills. Electric heat pumps cost less to run than an oil or propane furnace and can be powered by electricity — an energy source that in many communities is already fossil free and will only get cleaner as we amp up our use of renewable energy.
Another science-backed climate solution ideal for Vermont is protecting more of our forested lands. Our trees, soil, and wetlands are our natural super-power. They capture and store carbon — fighting climate change for us every day. Promoting the use of our natural systems and working lands as climate solutions also helps protect rural communities from flooding and toxic runoff as more and bigger storms are on the horizon.
The Climate Action Plan will direct how Vermont slashes its polluting emissions and builds climate-ready, safe and healthy neighborhoods through the methods described above. This isn’t some pipe dream: Crafting and implementing the Plan is within our reach. We have the knowledge. We have the experts. We have the process for community and public input.
By bringing everyone to the table and putting in the legwork now, we can ensure all Vermonters reap tangible benefits from federal funds heading our way. This makes our state a wonderful, healthy place for everyone for generations to come.
Sandra Levine is a retired attorney, formerly with the Conservation Law Foundation. She lives in Middlesex.