Will Vermont's New Climate Coalition, Modeled After Paris Agreement, Spur Change?

Jun 21, 2017

Gathered in Burlington Tuesday, public officials and private sector leaders announced a new coalition to address climate change, but critics say the coalition will only work if state leaders "walk the walk" in making policy decisions that address climate change.

Gov. Phil Scott said the Vermont Climate Pledge Coalition is a response to the Trump administration's decision to leave the Paris Climate Agreement.

“We can all agree the challenge and opportunity for action on climate change in our country now rests with the states,” Scott said after referring to President Trump’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement formed in 2015.

The new coalition plans to recruit businesses and other institutions in Vermont ahead of a summit this fall where each member will set a voluntary goal for their actions on climate change.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, who helped organize the coalition, said the structure somewhat resembles that of the Paris Agreements, only at a statewide level instead of global. Weinberger said the hope is that grassroots support for more action to slow climate change will bring new organizations into the effort.

“We envision individuals going to their town leaders, going to their companies, and saying ‘Maybe this is something we should be part of,’” Weinberger said. “And I am very confident that when we get to that fall summit, you will see all sorts of new pledges and new pledgers – groups beyond the ones that in the past have already taken some kind of action – I think we’re going to expand that dramatically, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

The coalition has its detractors among environmental groups. Right next to the news conference announcing the climate coalition at the ECHO Center on Burlington’s waterfront, a group of demonstrators from the Vermont Public Interest Research Group held up signs of support for wind energy, and calling on Scott and other political leaders to “walk the walk” when it comes to fighting climate change.

The demonstrators didn’t do anything to interrupt the coalition’s event. Their presence was a reminder that despite Scott’s clear disagreement with the Trump administration on climate policy, Scott’s rhetoric on the issue doesn’t line up with his policy positions.

One of those disagreements was in stark contrast within the coalition’s speaking lineup. Shortly after Scott spoke, Ashley Orgain from the Burlington company Seventh Generation spoke. She is the director of mission advocacy and engagement for the company, and she said Seventh Generation has implemented an internal “price on carbon,” in effect artificially inflating the financial cost of business activities that lead to carbon emissions to match the environmental and social costs of climate change.

Orgain said a similar policy, often known as a “carbon tax” could work at the state level.

“To meet our commitments, especially in an era when the federal government is moving in the wrong direction, we think that an essential solution for Vermont is to price carbon pollution,” she said. “At Seventh Generation, we are walking the walk on climate issues, but we need our partners in the public sector to do the same if we’re going to reach our goals together.”

"To meet our commitments, especially in an era when the federal government is moving in the wrong direction, we think that an essential solution for Vermont is to price carbon pollution." - Ashley Orgain, Seventh Generation

Orgain’s call for a government-enforced “price” on carbon emissions is exactly what Phil Scott, with strong support from the Vermont Republican party apparatus, campaigned against in the 2016 elections. (Scott campaigned more generally on  a platform of no new taxes or fees; his opposition to a carbon tax was not issue-specific.)

Asked if the recommendation of Seventh Generation, a fellow member of the new coalition, was enough to sway him, Scott said no.

“Well, I think you can do it through other means,” Scott said. “I don’t think that pricing carbon is the only answer for this coalition, and I look for ways for us to work together, build bridges, in order for us to agree on goals, and I think that’s part of the answer: That we don’t all agree on every single issue, but the common goal is to reduce carbon emissions and do what we can to help ourselves.”

Asked what specific state-level actions he would support, Scott offered few specifics.

"I think that's part of the answer: That we don't all agree on every single issue, but the common goal is to reduce carbon emissions and do what we can to help ourselves." - Gov. Phil Scott

“Well, more conservation. I think that that’s where we get huge bang for our buck,” Scott said. “I believe that there are going to be- technology is going to change so much of what we do. Instrumentation. I think that that’s another area, through efficiencies and so forth. And building – some of the- more solar in many different ways. I think there are many different ways to reach the goal.”

Asked by Terri Hallenbeck of Seven Days “what does that look like and who pays for it?” Scott again offered few specifics.

“We all pay for it in some way, but that’s what this coalition will do, is to- if we’re all in it together, trying to pull in the same direction, I think we’ll have positive results,” he said.

Scott, Weinberger and other members of the coalition said its members will set goals for their own carbon reductions at the fall summit, then report their progress publicly. Weinberger noted that participation is voluntary and there are no penalties for members that don't meet their goals, and he acknowledged the limits of that model.

"I don't think these voluntary coalitions are a replacement for the federal government using its vast powers to move the country in the right direction," he said. "That's why I said in my first sentences here [today], it was a historic mistake by the Trump administration. It has set back the cause of addressing climate change for many years and it needs to be reversed for us ultimately to get to our goals. I do think we can mitigate that historic mistake through the actions of civil society, and through the actions of our organizations."