After the Legislature passed H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, there were bits of rose-colored speculation that Gov. Phil Scott might see his way clear to signing the thing. After all, he’s apparently sailing to re-election; he has no reason to fear a revolt from the Republican Party’s sad, atrophied right wing. This might have been an occasion to cement his reputation as a caring moderate, perhaps in anticipation of a future run for Congress.
But no, in the words of a thousand uncreative ledes, he “wielded his veto pen.” And the reasons were utterly predictable, and absolutely in line with his consistent position on climate change: He acknowledges the scope of the challenge, but refuses to support any real interventions. And just for added spice, he threw in one of his spurious constitutional arguments against the bill.
Scott’s approach to climate change is to oppose any measure that would impose enforceable goals before the safely-distant year 2050, cost a single Vermonter a single dime, or inconvenience any Vermonter with mandatory changes in energy usage. His vision of achieving our 2050 goal depends heavily on market forces, future technological advances, and a whole lot of water power from the green-but-otherwise-problematic flooding of First Nations land by Hydro Quebec.
In his veto message, Scott cited three objections. He doesn’t like a provision that would allow for citizen lawsuits over state failure to achieve climate goals. It “could lead to costly litigation and delay,” he wrote. Well, sure, but only if the state fails to hit its climate targets. And we’ve seen over and over again what happens when the state sets targets that lack an enforcement mechanism: They immediately become aspirational, and ignorable. We just blow by them without a second thought. His administration has already admitted defeat on reaching our current short-term climate goals.
His second argument is a rerun of an old favorite: A constitutional separation-of-powers issue over the creation of a Vermont Climate Council. As he has stated in the past, Scott believes it’s unconstitutional to create a state body without ultimate Executive authority over the makeup of the body. He wants to be able to hire and fire the Council’s members, in short.
This argument has been made by him and his legal counsel Jaye Pershing Johnson, and by precisely no one else. The Legislature’s lawyers don’t see it, and neither does Attorney General TJ Donovan.
Finally, he objects to “the absence of a process ensuring the Legislature would formally vote on [a climate action plan] promulgated by an unelected, unaccountable Council.” That sounds like a thing; under the bill, the Climate Council would set targets and the state’s Natural Resources Agency would be required to establish rules to meet the targets.
Well, here’s the thing. Legislatures tend to be fickle, cowardly bodies. When confronted with the necessity for urgent action, lawmakers tend to kick the can down the road. (As they are currently doing with the state budget, but that’s another story.)
Ironically, Scott cites our sad experience with waterways cleanup as a shining example of the right approach to the climate crisis. He draws a clear line at the beginning of his tenure in office: Before was the Bad Time when cleanup efforts were hampered by “expensive and unnecessary litigation and the uncertainty those suits created.”
That’s one way to look at it. Too bad it’s dead wrong. We would never have been forced to confront waterways cleanup without a lawsuit that led to federal mandates that forced us to face up to our obligations. What happened after 2016 is not that we suddenly had a heroic Governor leading us into the Promised Land. No, what happened is that the time for delay ran out. The Feds got serious. The administration and the Legislature were forced to craft a cleanup plan or face the imposition of a plan from above.
I imagine, if anything, the drafters of H.688 were painfully aware that the legislative/executive process was at the heart of the long delay on waterway cleanup, and they were trying to avoid a repeat on climate action.
If left to his own devices, Scott would delay any meaningful action as long as possible. He has said, repeatedly, that he expects market forces to fuel a rapid transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles. He likes to toss in a cute little line about new-generation electric sportscars, or even racing an electric Number 14 at Thunder Road.
There are two problems with this “wait for a technological fix” formulation. First is that while innovation is a strong force, it’s an unpredictable one, and real innovation often runs into roadblocks in achieving market penetration. The entrenched key players have no interest in disruptive technology unless they own it.
Second is that the longer we delay, the more we accelerate the climate crisis. Scott would have us ramp up slowly at first and achieve a faster climb as 2050 draws near. In the meantime, we create a lot more climate-changing emissions.The GWSA would force the curve upward with enforceable intermediate targets, thus substantially reducing our contribution to the climate crisis.
It’s nice that Phil Scott harbors appropriately green sentiments. But in how he turns intent into action, he’s effectively not all that different than his fellow Republican climate denialists.
A veto override is almost certain in the Senate. The House, as usual, is a touchier thing. Last week’s vote on H.688 was 102 yes, 45 no. Speaker Mitzi Johnson abstained; two Republicans were absent. Three Democrats — Chris Bates of Bennington, Bill Notte of Rutland and Kelley Tully of Rockingham — voted “no.”
Scanning the roll call, I see few likely turncoats. Democrat Cynthia Browning of Arlington voted “yes,” but I wouldn’t put it past her to vote “no” on the override out of sheer spite. Not a single Republican voted “yes.” If any Republicans had been among the 102, they would have been under heavy pressure to sustain their governor’s veto. The three Dems who voted “no” could be pressured to uphold their caucus’ position against the governor; Notte could be persuadable, but Bates and Tully are immune to party pressure because they aren’t running for re-election. (Tully, a member of the fuel-dealing Cota clan, was appointed by the governor to fill a vacancy earlier this year. Most local Dems see her as an interloper, and rejected her in the primary.) And Johnson could cast a vote if need be.
So it’ll be a close vote on override, but things look good for the Dem/Prog majority. They’ll have to make sure that every single one of their members is present for the vote. The biggest hurdle — getting everyone to Montpelier — is absent, thanks to the pandemic and resultant remote floor sessions. Whether he likes it or not, Scott will have to deal with the Global Warming Solutions Act — although chances are, things won’t start getting interesting until he’s no longer our governor.
It would be a significant victory in fighting climate change, but it would have been a much easier task without a Republican in the corner office. With a like-minded Democrat as governor, House leadership would only need to wrangle 76 votes instead of 100. Heck, we might have gotten an even more robust version of H.688.