When the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord was finalized last week, it made us the only country in the world not participating in that global agreement. Fortunately, the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris promises to reverse the past four years’ dismal record on climate action. President-elect Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Accord as one of his first actions, hopefully bringing us back to a global leadership role on climate change.
Under the Trump administration, we’ve seen rollbacks of environmental protections at an unprecedented scale, making swift national action on climate absolutely critical. Meanwhile, the sheer extent of rebuilding from Trump-era cutbacks, combined with recovery from COVID-19, means Vermont needs to stand strong as a role model, showing how investing in clean air, clean water and climate action go hand in hand with building strong and resilient local economies.
Here in Vermont, voters turned out in record-breaking numbers to elect legislative candidates focused on building a clean energy economy, supporting healthy families and communities, stewarding a clean environment, and advancing racial equity and environmental justice.
With the notable exception of Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson (who was limited in her ability to run an active campaign this year while running the House during a pandemic), large pro-environment majorities were elected in the House and Senate, from all corners of the state. The Speaker was, ironically, a victim of her steadfast focus on helping to lead Vermont through a crisis.
While the absence of Speaker Johnson’s steady hand will change the dynamic in the Vermont House of Representatives, her absence – coupled with the decision of Tim Ashe not to return to his position as Senate President Pro Tem – means there will be new leadership in both legislative chambers. Early indications are whoever emerges as legislative leaders in the coming biennium will share the desire of a large majority of Vermont voters to build strong, local economies built upon clean energy, a healthy environment, and the revitalization of our village centers and downtowns.
In statewide races, five out of six statewide officials who ran on a pro-environment platform won by decisive margins. Molly Gray won her race for the open seat of Lieutenant Governor after making a clean energy economy a top priority in her campaign.
Incumbent Gov. Phil Scott was rewarded for handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Vermonters, understandably, rewarded him for his calm leadership and adherence to science and the advice of medical professionals — which clearly set him apart from the Trump administration. Unfortunately, his track record on environmental issues has been discouraging, which is why the pro-environment majorities in the Vermont Legislature will need to lead.
Fortunately, we have one new law in place that is driving progress on climate right now and in the year ahead. Implementation of the Global Warming Solutions Act, finally enacted in September (after the House and Senate overrode Governor Scott’s veto of the bill), has already begun. The GWSA transforms Vermont’s existing emission reduction goals into requirements and establishes a Climate Council to develop a plan to meet these mandates.
Appointees to the Council were named last month, comprising voices from rural communities, municipal governments, small businesses, the fuel sector, environmental advocacy groups and many others. The Council is set to have its first meeting in late November, and will have 13 months to come up with a plan to drive Vermont forward, and greenhouse emissions down. We are optimistic about the GWSA providing us with the necessary framework to shape our response at the scope and scale the challenges demand.
In the past few days, we are witnessing what happens when we grow complacent and start to let our guard down – and ignore science: COVID-19 rates rise dramatically, nationally and right here in Vermont. The same will be true of climate change. We can’t ignore the science, and we can’t ignore the desire of Vermonters for cleaner air and water, and cleaner energy sources – and the job opportunities that will result from growing a resilient, locally-based economy.
Regardless of the nitty gritty of last week’s elections, one thing is certain: Vermonters voted overwhelmingly for climate action, clean water, and other issues that affect people’s health and the health of our environment. We have an incredible opportunity to work together, with our new and returning leadership, to rebuild Vermont into the place we want to leave future generations.
Brian Shupe is Vermont Natural Resources Council Executive Director.