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Climate Commitment? The Governor and the Paris Accord


Published June 21, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.

Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
Gov. Phil Scott speaks with reporters after the announcement of the Vermont Climate Pledge Coalition - JOHN WALTERS
  • John Walters
  • Gov. Phil Scott speaks with reporters after the announcement of the Vermont Climate Pledge Coalition

Environmental groups have applauded Gov. Phil Scott for signing onto the United States Climate Alliance, thus making a commitment to the Paris climate agreement after President Donald Trump's decision to back out. But they want more than a signature on a document.

"There's an insubstantiality to just announcing it," says Vermont climate activist and author Bill McKibben. On June 2, a coalition of environmental groups sent Scott a letter, calling for him to substantiate his commitment.

They got their response late Friday afternoon, when Scott responded with a letter outlining the first steps in turning his signature into action. Or at least turning his signature into talk that might lead to action.

That's right, my friends — he wants a climate change commission.

The obligatory eyeroll at the thought of yet another commission is only deepened by the knowledge that then-governor Jim Douglas created his own Commission on Climate Change.

In 2005.

The commission led to the creation of — wait for it — the Vermont Climate Collaborative, an effort to bring government and academia together to examine the issue. If that august body produced any actual results, they are lost to the mists of history.

But Agency of Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Peter Walke insists that this panel will be more impactful than other commissions. He says it will include "representation from state agencies, the nonprofit, education and business world, so we can have a conversation about all sectors of the economy and figure out how we, as a state, want to move forward together. They will be tasked with coming up with a realistic short-term greenhouse gas reduction plan."

Scott was on hand for Tuesday's announcement on the Burlington waterfront of the Vermont Climate Pledge Coalition, an effort to encourage municipalities, nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and businesses to voluntarily craft their own carbon-reduction plans. Yes, participating in the coalition is voluntary. Neither Scott nor the other dignitaries present could identify a single immediate action — just a plan for a summit meeting this fall. But hey, they did come up with a nice forward-leaning coalition logo, conveying the impression of dynamic movement.

None of this is likely to mollify environmentalists such as Johanna Miller, energy program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, who asserts that the governor's climate policy has "been light on substance." Hers is a common view in the environmental community.

"They've not taken specific action in the last couple of weeks, and that's very disappointing," says Sandy Levine, senior attorney for Vermont's Conservation Law Foundation, speaking about the Scott administration. "They've had opportunities to support renewable energy more. They've had opportunities to support electric vehicles more. They've had opportunities to support increasing rather than reducing energy efficiency. And those are just in the last few weeks."

Scott has staunchly opposed a carbon tax in response to climate change and proposed cuts in funding for the energy conservation organization Efficiency Vermont, which the governor seems to be simultaneously disowning and promoting.

In his letter, he said it was "incorrect" that his administration sought a significant cut in Efficiency Vermont. He added, "Efficiency Vermont has proposed a budget reduction for itself. We simply differ with Efficiency Vermont on the magnitude of the reduction that is appropriate at this time."

Ohh. So he didn't propose cutting Efficiency Vermont; he merely proposed a deeper cut in Efficiency Vermont.

Walke defends the administration's approach of talking first, building consensus and acting later.

"We have to bring all those voices to the table and figure out how we make it work for everybody," he says. "We need all the voices at the table, and from there we can work on concrete actions that have broad buy-in." He adds that the administration has an obligation to "balance lots of different priorities."

McKibben begs to differ.

"Almost everything else that crosses Phil Scott's desk, the right answer is somewhere in the middle, right?" he asks. Whether it's education or crime or economic development, "you can argue on all sides of these questions and meet someplace in the middle," he says.

"The negotiation on climate change isn't really between Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives," McKibben continues. "The real negotiation is between human beings and physics. And that's different, because physics doesn't negotiate. It's uninterested in compromise and unimpressed by rhetoric."

Environmental groups are grateful for Scott's participation. They are willing to take part in the governor's climate commission. But sooner or later, hopefully sooner, as Miller says, "we need to see the rubber hit the road."

Health Disconnect

It seemed to herald a milestone for the trouble-plagued Vermont Health Connect system. On June 13, Vermont Public Radio reported on an external audit showing that the system had "met all requirements set forth by the federal government" and quoted Department of Vermont Health Access Commissioner Cory Gustafson as saying the audit results were "as good as it gets."

So, mission accomplished? VHC is a success?

Ehh, nope.

The online health insurance marketplace is supposed to allow people to choose, or change, coverage plans. The audit, by the consulting firm of Berry Dunn McNeil & Parker, evaluated VHC's output, not its process. As far as it went, it was very good news indeed, but it wasn't meant to assess the internal workings of VHC, which are still on shaky ground. 

"The analogy for me is that we've had a car that doesn't work, and we've had people pushing that car," Gustafson explains. "And we have to figure out what kind of car we're going to have, so we won't have a lot of people pushing the car."

"From a system perspective, it's very clear we still have work to do on the technology," says Cassandra Madison, the department's director of health care eligibility and enrollment. You may recall her as Cassandra Gekas, the Progressive and Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 2012 and a strong advocate for universal health care access. "It's been built patch upon patch upon patch."

Beyond the excessive workload of constantly patching the system, there's a longer-term issue.

"When you have work-arounds and patchwork, you can't upgrade things," says Gustafson. The current system, over time, will become increasingly in need of more work-arounds. And that's not sustainable."

As a candidate, Scott railed constantly on the need to dump VHC and replace it with ... something else. But Gustafson's team is taking it slow — aiming to get it right this time. And it doesn't seem like much has changed since Scott took office. Keeping the system working as well as it can remains the short-term goal; the longer-term goal is still to create a system that won't require patches.

One crucial aspect of the audit should not be overlooked. The federal government funds the majority of work done by the Department of Vermont Health Access. "The view of our federal partners on how we're doing is incredibly important," notes Madison. "In that sense, a positive audit finding is good news."

Media Note

Devoted readers of the Burlington Free Press may have noticed an article on page 11A of the June 15 edition entitled "Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Burlington Town Center."

The story's layout was extremely similar to that used in Free Press news stories, but it was, in fact, an advertisement — paid for and provided by the firm that's seeking to redevelop the failing downtown mall. The only visual cue was the word "ADVERTISEMENT" tucked into the upper-left corner above the headline.

In the business, it's called an "advertorial" or "native advertising" — content designed to blend in with the actual news. David Mindich, a journalism professor at Saint Michael's College, calls it yet another intrusion into the "sacred space" of a newspaper. For advertisers, it's a way to get around the automatic tendency of some readers to gloss over the ads and read only the news.

"These informational pieces are just another part of the Burlington Town Center's advertising with the Free Press, and the placement is run through the Free Press advertising department," BTC consultant Liz Miller wrote in an email. "The Burlington Town Center views them as a way to get updates and information to consumers as the redevelopment project approaches."

And yes, there will be more of these little gems. A note at the bottom of the June 15 article promises "these types of articles ... three times a month."

Revenue-starved publications are tempted to blur, or even erase, the line between editorial and advertorial. As traditional advertising and circulation continue to decline, the temptation grows.

"It's not like [the Free Press has] crossed a line that no one else has crossed," notes Mindich, "but it's important to be careful not to blur the line too much. I think that's what they've done. The test should be, would a typical reader know the difference? And I think that the answer might be no in this case."

Especially when the rest of the page was occupied by two actual news stories in a similar format.

"I don't want to bash the Free Press. They're in a tough spot. And all journalists in Vermont should be rooting for the Free Press' success," he says. "Ultimately, you guys are in the democracy business, so we want newspapers to succeed. But if a newspaper's goal is to be in the democracy business and holding leaders accountable, they can't cut those last corners of the line between ads and news."

FreePressMedia publisher Jim Fogler and advertising director Tammy Johnson did not return calls for comment.

Here at Seven Days, there's an ongoing dialogue over where and how to draw the advertorial line.

"We're still in the early stages of experimenting with longer native advertising pieces, and we're developing our policy as we go," wrote associate publisher Cathy Resmer in an email about Seven Days' use of advertorials. "Our native advertising pieces will appear in many of the same places that our stories appear, but obviously we want to clearly label native content so that readers don't confuse it with journalism."

There's a constant debate over where to draw the line. There's a constant tension between principle and profit, between being in "the democracy business" and simply being a business. That tension is exacerbated in the case of the Free Press, which continues to lose readers and advertisers and is under constant pressure from its corporate masters to meet profit targets.

In the case of the Burlington Town Center "advertorials," it looks as though profit scored a victory over principle. This is especially concerning since the redevelopment is a major and controversial issue in Burlington. The developer's bought-and-paid-for publicity will look very similar to the Free Press' actual journalism on the subject.

Let the reader beware.