Category Archives: Environment

The Climate Inaction Administration

There are many reasons why a liberal voter might decide to support Gov. Phil Scott for re-election. You might be impressed with his handling of the coronavirus. You might appreciate him as a counterbalance to an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature. You might prefer a calm, careful executive to a new-ideas chief more likely to blunder.

But there’s one thing you can’t do. If you believe that climate change is the issue of our times, you have no business voting for the incumbent.

Let me put that another way. If you vote for Phil Scott, you are not serious about climate change.

There might be a certain level of unwarranted satisfaction these days, given the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act over Scott’s veto. Some might talk themselves into believing that we can make significant progress on the climate crisis no matter who’s the governor, as long as the Dems/Progs hold substantial majorities in the House and Senate.

There are two fundamental problems with this. First, while GWSA is a notable advance, it doesn’t actually do anything. It sets climate targets and establishes consequences if we fail to meet those targets, but that’s about all. GWSA was, if you will, the first and easiest step in addressing the crisis.

Second, while the governor’s words are full of concern about climate change, his actions have been minimal at best, counterproductive at worst. His administration is a formidable roadblock to climate progress, and will remain that way as long as he is in office.

I think this is why Scott objected so strenuously to a GWSA provision that leaves the state open to lawsuits if it falls short of greenhouse gas reduction goals. He knows that his policies are inadequate to meeting those targets, and that makes lawsuits almost inevitable.

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Was Anyone Really Surprised By the Veto?

Gov. Phil Scott. (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

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.

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When energy is “renewable” but not exactly clean

Can we stop talking about how wind turbines destroy ridge lines?

Real shocker from VTDigger: The large-scale hydropower dams in northern Quebec, which provide much of Vermont’s supply of “renewable” electricity, have taken a human toll on First Nations communities in the far north. And will take an even greater toll as more dams are built.

Because of course they have and of course they will. Each dam floods huge tracts of land. The Innu and Inuit people depend heavily on using their land for hunting and gathering. Their lives are being constricted by the buildout of hydro power, which is in high demand from New England states eager to meet renewable energy targets. Which, in turn, means that more dams are in the works.

By exporting our environmental pain to faraway people. Or, as Inuit elder Alex Saunders put it, “Think about what you’re buying here. You’re buying the misery from the local people of northern Canada.”

You put it that, way, HQ’s “renewable” energy seems a little less renewable.

This isn’t a simple issue. HQ is a major resource for non-carbon-emitting power, and will continue to be. But the lives of indigenous people shouldn’t be swept aside — especially when Vermonters are so queasy about the esthetics of solar and wind installations in their home state, and seem to want to preserve Vermont’s [ahem, false] purity at the expense of others.

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ANR Commish Targets the Messenger

The algae isn’t the problem. The problem is, this picture of the algae.

Vermont Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore is blaming the media for reporting on Lake Champlain’s water quality problems. Nice.

During a presentation to lawmakers on Wednesday, Moore displayed a series of articles covering outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae on the lake, and blamed those damn reports for a more than 10 percent drop in visits to certain state parks this year.

“It’s headlines like these that probably played no small part in discouraging people from heading to our parks,” she told lawmakers, according to VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff.

There’s a few problems with this, need I say. First, as you may have discerned from the “probably,” Moore has no actual evidence to back up her assertion.

Second, the drop was reported at eight of Vermont’s 13 lakeside parks. What about the other five?

Third, it’s not cool to blame the media for, you know, doing their goddamn jobs. If there’s a potentially toxic — and spectacularly ugly — algae bloom on the lake, are we supposed to ignore it for fear of inciting tourists to stay away?

Fourth, those blooms have been a regular summertime feature of Vermont life for years and years. Did this past year’s reportage suddenly hit home this year?

Were there more stories than ever before? Moore admitted she doesn’t know.

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The kids aren’t going anywhere

The legislature has been warned. At the end of the 2019 session, a small band of climate protesters occupied the balcony in the House chamber and unfurled a banner promising to return in 2020. They were largely met with disdain by legislative leaders, for their offenses against regular order.

Well, those leaders had better get ready for more. Climate activists were distinctly underwhelmed by the legislature’s meager accomplishments. Their attitude can’t have improved since then, what with top lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott all acknowledging that Vermont is going to miss its near-term climate targets by a mile. And Scott pinning his hopes on the magic bullet of technological advances to drag Vermont forward.

The problem with that approach is (a) it’s iffy and (b) it lets us keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere until The Golden Age Of New Technology appears. In the meantime we’ll be doing our part to deepen the climate crisis.

Meanwhile, climate activists have launched a series of Statehouse actions. They recently held a rally calling on MMR, the capital’s most successful black-hat lobbying firm, to drop so-called “reprehensible” corporate clients, including fossil fuel producers and other corporate giants. Last week, a few dozen climate activists camped out on the Statehouse lawn, braving lousy weather to emphasize their point: They’re not going anywhere, and they’re not at all satisfied with the “progress” made by our political leaders, who mostly address the crisis by way of lip service.

And who, truth be told, are probably gearing up for more disappointment on the climate front. Nobody’s talking about the kind of action that would get us back on track to meet our goals. Nobody with any power is seriously talking about, say, a carbon tax — which was originally a Republican idea to address climate change through market forces, but is now considered anathema by even the self-identified moderates of the Vermont GOP. Democratic leaders are likely to prioritize the stuff they fumbled this year: minimum wage, paid family leave, a full tax-and-regulate system for cannabis and a waiting period for gun purchases.

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Caution in the face of crisis

Gov. Phil Scott has taken something of a ribbing on The Twitter Machine for saying that when it comes to climate change, “I’m not looking to reinvent the wheel, I’m not looking to come out with something dramatic,”

Because heaven forfend we should respond to a crisis with “something dramatic.” I mean, if your house is on fire, do you really want the fire department waking up the neighborhood with their sirens and flashers? Do you want firefighters trampling all over your lawn?

Scott’s comment was in a truly dispiriting article by VTDigger’s Elizabeth Gribkoff about how state leaders have given up on meeting Vermont’s near-term climate goals, including a 2007 law which mandates a 50% reduction (from 1992 levels) in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2028 and a goal of weatherizing 80,000 Vermont homes by, ahem, next year. (Of course, the legislature had the foresight to impose no penalties for breaking the GHG law, so no harm, no foul, right?)

More on Our Cautious Governor in a moment. But first I’d like to point out that legislative leadership doesn’t look any better. Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, The State’s Most Conservative Progressive, talked of “a pretty serious conceptual shift” that kinda-sorta makes those goals… irrelevant?

As Ashe put it, “And so we might think about things differently today than we did when those particular goals were made in terms of timing and strategies.”

Umm, okay. For her part, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson meets the challenge with a profusion of past participles: “In order to have met that goal, we needed to have been keeping closer track of it all along the way,” said Johnson.

I get it. We’re gonna bullshit our way out of the crisis.

In the meantime, I look forward to the passage of legislation officially removing our climate goals from the law. It’d be honest, if nothing else.

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Arise, Teen Selfie Stars

Climate activist and current darling of the free world Greta Thunberg has had enough of your adulation.

Everywhere I have been the situation is more or less same. The people in power, their beautiful words are the same. The number of politicians and celebrities who want to take selfies with us are the same. The empty promises are the same. The lies are the same, and the inaction is the same. Nowhere have I found anyone in power who dares to tell it like it is, because no matter where you are, even that burden they leave to us, us teenagers, us children.

She said that last Friday, at a climate strike rally in New York City. And she’s dead right. Thunberg’s critics have been thoroughly condescending about this pigtailed teenager telling us how to run the world — and her supporters have offered a more subtle form of condescension. There’s an undercurrent of “how cute” and “isn’t it amazing that this teenager is so bright, so committed?” not unlike when Joe Biden called Barack Obama clean and articulate, as if that’s surprising to see in a black man. We applaud Thunberg, we get a selfie, maybe we even give her the Nobel Peace Prize, and we feel like we’ve made a statement on the world’s climate crisis.

When, in fact, we’ve done jack shit. Thunberg made this even more explicit in her Sunday address at the United Nations:

This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you come to us young people for hope. How dare you. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”

It may be time for Vermont’s own teen selfie stars to adopt the same attitude.

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The Narrow Parameters of Acceptable Debate

So how many political parties do we have in Vermont? Two? Three? Umpteen, if you count Liberty Union and whatever Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton have going on and the Mad Hatter of #vtpoli, H. Brooke Paige?

(I know, he’s a Republican. But any day I can mention Mr. Paige is a good day.)

Well, looking at recent policy debates in the Statehouse, you might just conclude that we have a grand total of one: The Moosh Party. Because on a whole range of issues, there’s little disagreement on the fundamentals; the discussion is confined to the details. At a time when Vermont faces some huge challenges, there’s a complete lack of bold thinking in the executive and legislative branches. We’re All In The Box.

The most basic area of consensus is on state finances. There’s no serious talk of raising taxes, cutting taxes or even significantly reforming our tax system. There’s no serious talk of raising or cutting spending. Streamlining or reforming government seems as unattainable as ever.

(When Phil Scott was running for governor in 2016, he talked a lot about “Lean management” as a way to make government more efficient and free up money to pay for new programs without raising taxes. He rarely, if ever, brings up that idea anymore. His state website touts his PIVOT program (Program to Improve Vermont Outcomes Together, and someone was paid taxpayer dollars to come up with that pukey acronym) but — deep into the third year of the Scott Era — doesn’t cite any cost savings. It does boast of 44 PIVOT projects underway and the training of hundreds of state managers and employees in Lean practices. Which makes me suspect that spending on PIVOT has outweighed any actual savings.)

When times are good and the state is enjoying unexpected revenue, the broad consensus is that we shouldn’t spend it — or at least not very much of it. The Republican governor and the four Democratic money committee chairs are in agreement on that. Except perhaps at the margins.

There’s also broad agreement that the state shouldn’t be borrowing any more money. Remember Sen. Michael Sirotkin’s ill-fated proposal to launch another $35 million housing bond this year? He’s a powerful committee chair, and his idea went nowhere. One of the loudest voices in opposition: Democratic Treasurer Beth Pearce, who’s fiercely protective of the state’s bond rating.

All this broad consensus leaves room only for piecemeal action. Take, for example, the legislature finding $6 million in this year’s budget to boost child-care subsidies. Nothing to sneeze at, but advocates will tell you that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the actual need — for parents trying to keep their jobs and for child-care workers trying to make a living.

And it’s one-time money. That’s what passes for significant accomplishment in 2019.

Here’s another. Universal broadband is widely seen as a necessity for rural Vermont to become economically competitive. This year, the state enacted Act 79, which produces $1.2-1.4 million per year for broadband grants and creates a revolving loan fund for existing and startup internet service providers. A nice step, but nothing like a game-changer.

Meanwhile, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature whiffed on three signature issues: paid family leave, minimum wage and a tax-and-regulate system for cannabis. What’s notable about those three, besides the whiffing, is that none of them would have cost the state much money. Paid leave? A new tax. Minimum wage? Employers would foot the bill. Cannabis? Would have brought new revenue to state coffers.

Not even on the table: Climate change, housing, education, the tattered mental health system, economic development, seriously addressing income inequality and health care reform, among others. No effort, through increased state aid or some sort of student debt forgiveness, to confront our affordability crisis in higher education. Nothing to address Vermont’s demographic crisis — except for the Scott administration’s dink-and-doink grant programs that only benefit a handful of employers and workers. On climate change, leaders of both parties acknowledge the crisis and our lack of progress toward established climate goals. But propose or approve a truly game-changing agenda? Not on your life.

Literally.

For years, politicians on all sides have talked about ending our reliance on out-of-state prisons. But actually doing something about it? Spending money on facilities or enacting new programs to reduce the inmate population? Nah.

Any effort to close the ridiculously large and still growing wealth gap, either through boosting benefits or job training or education affordability — or through increasing taxes on top earners? All talk, no action.

Health care reform would seem to be a critical need, considering that the Green Mountain Care Board just approved whopping insurance-rate premiums. But do you hear anything besides the gentle shuff-shuff of hand-wringing? Nope. I think elected officials of all stripes are still scarred by then-governor Peter Shumlin’s disastrous reform efforts. Nobody wants to call that monster out from under the bed.

The biggest exception to this depressing parade of cromulence was Act 76, which establishes a revenue source and administrative structure for waterways cleanup. Nice. But it only came after years of ducking the issue as long as humanly possible — even as toxic algae blooms make an annual joke of our alleged commitment to environmental purity, not to mention killing dogs and maybe causing Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And action only came under threat of federal intervention. Yep, we can thank the Trump EPA for forcing Vermont to clean up its water.

This around-the-middle consensus isn’t only frustrating for those on the left. It’s got to be just as galling for conservatives, who believe the answer to Vermont’s problems lies in cutting taxes, spending and regulation. You’re not getting any of that from Team Scott, much less the legislature.

It’s funny. Vermont is widely seen as bluer-than-blue Bernie Country. But our current crop of elected leaders is comfortably at home in a narrow band of non-threatening incrementalism.

 

 

Art Woolf, Random Access Almanac

I have been very mean to former UVM economist Art Woolf in the past. I’ve dubbed him Vermont’s Loudest Economist and Vermont’s Laziest Economist, and once referred to him as The Human Almanac for his ability to produce a rash of statistics in lieu of actual insight. I once summarized his output thusly: “Generally, Woolf’s columns present a distasteful combination of lazy analysis, careless oversimplification, conventional thinking, and free-market dogmatism.”

Sad to say, nothing has changed. Well, nothing except Woolf’s media outlet — formerly the Burlington Free Press, now VTDigger.org. I don’t know how much Digger is paying Woolf, but they’re not getting their money’s worth.

Woolf’s most recent essay, to use the term loosely, is a particularly half-hearted effort entitled “Understandably, electric-car conversion is highly charged.” Hardy har har, get it? “Charged”? “Electric cars”? Quite the kidder, that Art.

The entire piece is 15 paragraphs long. The first six are what my editors used to call “throat-clearing” — an overly discursive way of boosting the word count before actually getting to the point. Those paragraphs include a bunch of random facts about automobiles including their invention in 1879, their popularization by Donald Trump’s favorite anti-Semite Henry Ford, context-free statistics on the number of cars and trucks in Vermont and number of miles driven per year — and, as a bonus, the tone-deaf upper-middle-class observation that “today, just about anyone who wants a car can afford one.”

Gosh. Tell that to the folks who struggle to get to work every day or bite their nails to the nubbins whenever it’s annual inspection time. Or the organizers of Good News Garage.

Finally, in paragraph seven, Woolf begins to address his point: the state’s policy goal of shifting personal transportation to electric vehicles. Woolf is concerned about “a number of implications,” including the higher cost of EVs, the relative lack of charging stations and the time it takes to recharge an engine. All of which, it must be pointed out, are being addressed through market forces — a concept that a professional economist might be familiar with.

But those are mere warmups. Woolf’s real concern is the need for much greater supplies of electricity and how those kilowatt hours will be generated. He dismisses solar and wind as impractical to meet the demand — which is true enough, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be significant contributors. It also doesn’t mean that all the turbines and panels need to be sited inside Vermont.  Woolf then switches to Trump Mode, pointing out the need for backup power “on cloudy and windless days and windless nights.”

His only other idea for renewable power: Hydro-Quebec. No consideration of other potential sources, no mention of the ever-improving state of battery technology. No apparent awareness that EVs can be conveniently charged overnight, when power demands are much lower and can be easily met without massive new sources.

He then spends one paragraph on the problem of de-carbonizing our heating systems, again slamming the shortcomings of wind and solar. And that’s about it.

Here are two words you won’t find in the essay: “Climate change.” Woolf makes no effort whatsoever to address the massive costs of dealing with the carbonization of our atmosphere — which far outweigh the relative annoyances of transportation and heating electrification and boosting non-fossil-fuel power production.

You also won’t find any consideration of changing technology. Our energy system is apparently in stasis according to Woolf, with limited renewable options and power storage technology and unacceptably higher costs all around. Which is nonsense; technology is improving all the time and costs are coming down.

All in all, it’s a tiny unappealing bowl of intellectual gruel. Which is a shame, because Woolf occupies a place of some distinction in the realm of public thought. Is he really the best that Digger can do?

 

The case for wind

Most of Vermont’s media coverage of wind energy tells a David-and-Goliath story: the plucky locals and underdog activists going up against a corporate developer and the state regulatory system.

The pro-wind case usually gets short shrift. But even when it gets equal time, it’s almost always in response to anti-wind arguments. Rarely, if ever, is the positive case for wind given a fair hearing. As a result, there’s quite a bit of stuff about large-scale wind that most Vermonters don’t know. Here’s a list, with details to follow.

— For all our bluster about fossil fuels and gas pipelines, Vermont remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels, including fracked gas.

— Wind is a necessary component of a renewable system. There is no way we can reach our “90 percent by 2050” goal without large-scale wind.

— Wind has huge economic benefits, including tax payments to local and state governments and a healthier trade balance.

— Large-scale wind cannot be replaced by residential  turbines. It just doesn’t work. And replacing large-scale wind with more solar would dramatically increase solar’s footprint on our landscape.

— Thanks to recent advances, large-scale wind no longer has to be sited on the highest mountaintops. Lower ridges and hills are now suitable sites.

— Siting on developed land and rooftops is good, but it’s only a fraction of what we need. There aren’t nearly enough developed sites and roofs in Vermont.

And now for the details.

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