Bureaucracy Appreciation Minute: The Climate Council

Bureaucracy is often a target for criticism in these parts, but occasionally a situation calls for a plodding old tortoise instead of a flashy young hare. Take Wednesday morning, when the House Transportation Committee got an update on the Vermont Climate Council. The hearing provided a window on the huge amount of detailed work being done by the Council’s 23 members, as a body and in five subcommittees. (Its report to the committee can be accessed here.)

The Council was established by the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act, which became law when the Legislature overrode Gov. Phil Scott’s veto. Its goal is to adopt a Climate Action Plan by December 1, 2021. That’s little more than six months from now, which is a fast pace for such a body.

The details are, for the most part, boring. But they’re important. One example: As our vehicle fleet goes more and more to electric power, we’re going to need a network of public charging stations. But exactly how much needs to be done? Council members reported today that we need about five times as many as we have now by the year 2025. Determining the extent of the need is the starting point for action. It tells us what priority the charging infrastructure should have in our massive list of climate-fighting tasks, and how much work must be done.

By December, the Climate Council will have assembled all these details into a single tapestry of climate action. And then the real work will start.

I’ve been skeptical of the Global Warming Solutions Act, because it doesn’t actually do anything to fight climate change. That’s absolutely true. But what it does is establish a process, in law, of determining how best to address climate issues.

The endpoint is a plan with some teeth in it. Compare that to the governor’s Climate Action Commission, announced with great fanfare in 2017. The CAC worked for a year and produced a report, which has basically been put on a shelf along with all the other commission and task force and blue-ribbon panel reports that rarely move the needle on an issue.

The CAC had a purely political mission: Make it look like the administration was doing something on climate change. The Climate Council has the force of law behind it. We’re still dependent on the political will of our leaders to make it a reality, but it’ll be harder to ignore than the CAC report. Also, the Council’s report must meet certain targets established in law, so it has to be clearer and more specific than the CAC’s collection of vaguely-worded goals.

Not to mention that the CAC’s membership was heavily weighted toward the administration and the business community, while the Council’s members represent a wide variety of constituencies. Some were chosen by the governor, some by House or Senate leadership.

At the Wednesday hearing, council members laid out an aggressive timeline for the summer and fall. I don’t envy them their task, and I look forward to their report.

And then, as I said, the actual work will begin. That’s when we will find out whether the GWSA was a meaningful first step toward real action, or just another step on the road to nowhere.

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