Gov. Phil Scott with members of his Climate Action Commission
For the third time in twelve years, a Vermont governor has created a committee to address climate change.
In 2005 it was Jim Douglas. In 2011, Peter Shumlin gave it a shot. And now in 2017, Gov. Phil Scott has unveiled his very own Climate Action Commission. Every six years, like clockwork.
Scott even joked about the repeat performance. “I wanted to carry on the tradition,” he said at a Thursday press conference. The assembled dignitaries chuckled. He then proceeded to explain, with full seriousness, why Yet Another Panel was a good idea.
“I think it’s important to reestablish those commissions and look at what the objectives were of those commissions,” he said. “I think what we’re looking for is, they went a long ways, and we’re looking to move on from there forward.”
The commission itself is a bloated, 21-member panel representing just about every interest group in Vermont except for locksmiths and barbers. There is only one — count ’em, one — environmental advocate on board.
As Scott laid out his priorities for fighting climate change, it became clear that the commission won’t have much room to maneuver. He will oppose any measure that raises costs for any Vermonter. He is against renewable sources that might cause controversy, including ridgeline wind. And while he remains committed to Vermont’s climate goals, his vision for achieving them relies heavily on technological advances and buying lots of renewable energy from Hydro-Québec.
Beyond all that, he wants any climate measure to enjoy consensus support — from environmentalists to developers and fuel dealers.
All of this was laid out with heaping helpings of gubernatorial word salad, as Scott repeatedly dodged reporters’ questions and fled to the safe haven of his favorite talking points.
Think that’s harsh? Here’s a sample.
A reporter asked if Scott would consider switching his official vehicle — a ginormous black state police SUV — to an electric- or hybrid-powered one. An innocuous enough question, but he dropped it like a live grenade.
“You know, it will come to that at some point,” he said, and immediately pivoted to other stuff. “It’s, ah, you know, we know with the Volkswagen settlement, in fact I was talking about it this morning, ah, that what are we going to do? And I’ve asked our team to take a look. And we need to make investments in, you know, walk the talk. So we’ll see what happens in the future, but it’s not lost upon me that we need to do better in that regard.”
(Vermont is receiving $18.7 million from Volkswagen to settle allegations that the carmaker cheated emissions tests. The Scott administration is pondering how to spend that money.)
There seemed to be some deep confusion on the subject of energy independence. “If you can make a case that this is something that we will bring to Vermont to become more energy independent, more self-sufficient, I think that tugs at the heart of many Vermonters,” Scott said — after repeatedly citing the availability of renewable energy from Canada.
And he couldn’t resolve the evident contradiction between independence and reliance on others.
“They’re just like our next door neighbors; they’re not really, you know,” he explained. “But they offer renewable energy. Why do we have to produce everything ourselves when we have such a good rapport with them?”
Which ignores the fact that Québec’s “green energy” creates substantial impacts on fragile ecosystems and native populations. To the extent that Vermont relies on Canadian power to achieve our clean-power goals, we are merely outsourcing the environmental costs of our energy consumption.
Green rhetoric notwithstanding, Scott’s priority is cost. When asked what he would do if he had to choose between environmental progress and holding down costs, he retreated to familiar ground.
“My first day in office, I keep saying this but it’s worth repeating, growing Vermont’s economy, making Vermont affordable, taking care of the most vulnerable,” he said.
Climate change is a concern, but a secondary one.
As was made clear by the makeup of the Climate Action Commission. There are four top Scott appointees, 10 representatives of business interests and only one person from the environmental community — Johanna Miller, energy program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
I queried Scott about the lack of environmentalists on the panel.
There was a pause.
“Would anybody like to answer ...” he asked, stepping away from the microphone.
Public Service Commissioner June Tierney stepped forward and tried to swat away the question. “I would just point out, Mr. Walters, that there are many government officials here who are also environmentalists,” she said.
Yeah, thanks. You know what I meant.
And then it got worse.
“We’re Vermonters; we’re all environmentalists,” offered commission co-chair Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
Uh-huh. Sure. Bill McKibben, Skip Vallee — we’re all the same.
Afterward, I asked Miller if she was concerned about being the sole representative of the environmental movement.
“To be honest with you, this is the first time I’ve actually had any idea who was on the commission,” she said. “So I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around who’s there and what sort of perspective they’re going to bring.”
She pointed to the commission’s name as a positive indicator.
“It’s a good sign that [Scott is] calling it the Climate Action Commission,” she said, “because another plan and another commission that fails to take action is a failure.”
It is certainly too soon to brand Climate Panel, 2017 Edition, as a failure. Let’s just say that it’s gotten off to an inauspicious start. Last week, Scott held a press conference inside a dairy barn. This week’s event featured the purely metaphorical stench of bullshit.
Corrected July 24, 2017: The original version of this story misstated the amount of money Vermont is receiving from Volkswagen's settlement with the federal government over emissions testing. The correct figure is $18.7 million.