Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration’s top environmental official are in Paris for international climate talks. But even with an ocean between Shumlin and his constituency, opponents of the Vermont Gas pipeline to Addison County found a way to interject.
Aly Johnson-Kurts says she has been involved with the anti-pipeline movement for two years, and she has been active in protests against the pipeline in Vermont. She is in Paris as part of an independent study at her college focusing on global climate change, she said.
As Shumlin was speaking on a panel Wednesday about how local governments like Vermont’s are addressing climate change, Johnson-Kurts repeatedly interrupted him with questions about his support for the pipeline and demands that he reverse his position.
As he spoke to Vermont media on a conference call after the event, Shumlin responded to a question about the interruption by saying he and the protestors have similar feelings and goals – just not about natural gas.
“They share our sense of urgency that we’ve got to move off of oil and coal and move to renewables,” he said. “So Vermonters understand where we disagree. I believe running a gas pipeline to folks that are currently burning oil to heat their homes and to run their businesses is going to reduce our emissions, not increase our emissions – as well as put money in Vermonters’ pockets.”
Shumlin’s response to Johnson-Kurts, though, was less about Vermonters’ finances or the environment than it was about Johnson-Kurts herself.
As the interruption began, Shumlin briefly spoke over Johnson-Kurts before falling silent as she continued to speak. After about 15 seconds, he said, “Aly, come on now. Settle on down.” Then, “Why don’t you address the crowd after we’re done?”
Shumlin listened and responded to some of Johnson-Kurts’ concerns about fracking, then said “When we come to questions [later in the event], we’d love to answer them.”
His comments grew more personal after that, as Johnson-Kurts continued to disrupt the event, speaking loudly to the governor about the pipeline and hydraulic fracking and drawing verbal criticism from others in the room.
“Come on, I know your mom and dad and I know they taught you better manners than this,” Shumlin said. “You’re giving a beautiful speech, but you know, you’re missing classes back at Smith that you’re going to get in trouble for.”
Johnson-Kurtz paused and briefly sat down.
“OK, thank you. You’re beautiful. You’re eloquent,” Shumlin said before addressing the larger audience.
“As I was saying,” Shumlin continued before another protestor interrupted him. The panel’s moderator as well as members of the audience told the protestors to stop interrupting, but they continued.
“Are you all going to let us speak?” Shumlin asked. “Why don’t you two come up and address the crowd here if that’s what you want to do.” The crowd applauded, and Shumlin added: “Then we can move you out of here.”
But the panel’s moderator stepped in and refused.
“We invited these people to speak [the panelists] and we’re going to let them speak,” the moderator said.
Shumlin seemed to like this idea better.
“Yeah, come on,” he said. “Why don’t you run along back to Smith?”
Johnson-Kurts was at the event with Laura Cross, who recorded a video of the exchange and tweeted that Shumlin was “patronizing” to Johnson-Kurts, and included the hashtag #thisiswhatmisogenylookslike.
Shumlin spokesman Scott Coriell said the governor's comments were not intended as sexist.
"The governor and the moderator were trying to diffuse a difficult situation. That is not at all how his comments were intended," Coriell said in an email. Coriell also noted that Johnson-Kurts was a legislative page and she did not work specifically for Shumlin as she implied, though Shumlin was Senate president pro-tem at the time.
Johnson-Kurts said in an interview that she is attending the climate talks as part of an independent study at Smith College focusing on global climate change. Attending the conference is part of that work, she said.
She said that even though trans-Atlantic flight is a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the international summit is an important opportunity for young activists.
“I’m here because it’s important to me to meet young people from all over the world,” she said. “The U.N. presents a unique opportunity to meet with other young people, find out what they’re doing and collaborate on some things here and try to get the best deal out of Paris that we can.”
Johnson-Kurts said she plans to return to Smith next week.