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  • Middlebury Campus: Middlebury-led panel zooms in on Vermont’s climate future

By NICOLE POLLACK

Middlebury hosted Vermont’s branch of the “Solve Climate by 2030” project, drawing more than 70 Zoom users to its virtual panel while universities in nearly all 50 states hosted simultaneous webinars last Tuesday. Dr. Eban Goodstein, director of the Center for Environmental Policy and the MBA in Sustainability at Bard College, launched the project last year with the aim of convening a panel of experts in every state who would determine three ambitious but attainable actions that communities could take against climate change.

“What you do locally will change the future,” Goodstein said in his pre-recorded introduction to the panel, which was streamed to attendees at the beginning of the Zoom conference. He reminded viewers of the 2030 deadline to prevent catastrophic climate change, set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018, and emphasized the need for immediate, local action that will facilitate an equitable transition to clean energy sources and green jobs.

Transportation, heating and efficiency became the three areas of focus in the Vermont group’s discussion, which centered around constructing a Vermont that would work for all. The four panelists — Jared Duval, executive director of Vermont’s Energy Action Network; Carolyn Finney, scholar-in-residence in environmental affairs; Fran Putnam, a community organizer from Weybridge, Vermont; and Jack Byrne, dean of sustainability and environmental affairs — spoke at length about issues of justice and inclusion in future energy and transportation policy. Jon Isham, professor of economics and environmental studies, moderated the talk from the lounge inside Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, with the familiar backdrop of Adirondack House and Forest Hall visible behind him.

Due to concern about “Zoombombing,” attendees remained muted for the duration of the panel, with their posts in the chat function visible only to the panelists. The biggest challenge seemed to be keeping panelists within time constraints; the introduction portion of the panel took up most of the webinar’s scheduled 90 minutes.

Duval, the first panelist to speak, addressed Vermont’s particular energy challenges: 70% of the state’s climate pollution is the result of transportation and heating, which also make up most of Vermonters’ energy costs. While the state has developed successful policy in its electricity generation sector, Duval said it has not seen the same success in the transportation and heating sectors.

“It’s important to focus on the fuel,” he said, “but the fuel is not enough. It’s also about the equipment — the vehicles and the heating systems — and intervening at that point of purchase when you can avoid locking in a decade of fossil fuel use with vehicles, or two or three decades with the average life of a heating system.”

Duval noted that any policy addressing transportation and heating would need to focus on equity to ensure that low-income Vermonters are not left out of the transition to electric vehicles and heating systems.

Finney built on Duval’s point about justice in her introduction, discussing how the power dynamics and relationships present in Vermont decide who gets to participate in climate conversations. The issue of justice brings greater complexity to the conversation, she said, and this complexity must be addressed when developing solutions.

“It’s as though we’re asking ourselves to cut through to the solution,” Finney said of the panel’s aim. “And I think that makes a lot of people nervous — it makes me nervous — because I want to get there too, but I don’t want to get there the same way we’ve always gotten there. Because a lot of people are going to lose.”

Like Goodstein, Finney drew comparisons between Covid-19 and climate change. “Climate change does not honor borders,” she said. “And we know that just like we’ve seen with Covid-19, that it can impact everywhere, but it doesn’t impact everyone in the same way.” Throughout her introduction, she reiterated the importance of considering the diverse impacts that climate change will have in Vermont.

Putnam, who gave a talk last month about her self-designed study trip in the Nordic countries and is best known on campus for her work with the Sunday Night Environmental Group, spoke about her experience as a local environmental leader. As a retiree motivated to do something about climate change, she spearheaded programs for weatherization, waste management and transportation in Weybridge, Vermont and began volunteering with statewide environmental organizations and state legislators.

“If somebody like me with no academic credentials in this field, or expertise, can do something like this, anybody can do this,” Putnam said.

In Putnam’s experience, people in Vermont already want cleaner heating options and more efficient cars. The issue is affordability. “That’s where the state of Vermont has to come in,” she said. “That’s where our tax policies have to change. That’s where the political structure has to buy into this and let us do what needs to be done.”

Byrne brought his experience developing Energy2028 — the college’s commitment to use entirely renewable energy sources, reduce consumption by 25%, divest from fossil fuels and integrate the commitment into its educational mission by 2028 — to the conversation. He emphasized the potential for other towns to draw from the college’s success.

Following more than an hour of introductions, Isham raised a question from the chat about including indigenous people in climate conversations. Finney responded by criticizing the idea of outreach and its implication of offering help, focusing instead on the need to build a relationship of trust with indigenous communities and respect the actions they are already taking to combat climate change.

Isham then invited atmospheric scientist Alan Betts to join the conversation. Betts spoke for several minutes about the inability of the capitalist economic system to withstand planetary crises like Covid-19 and climate change, and the need to construct a just and stable world. “We cannot have justice unless we confront the corruption of the system that we have bought into and make it pay all the costs,” he said.

As the panel’s time limit approached, Isham asked the panelists to summarize their own priorities. Duval reiterated the importance of establishing a comprehensive policy and regulatory framework centered around equity, while Finney pushed for honesty and truthfulness in legislation and education.

Both Putnam and Byrne referred back to Betts’s call for economic transformation. Putnam spoke about the need for climate policy with fixed goals, which is currently stalled in the state legislature, as well as a fairer tax structure that prioritizes climate solutions, and the inclusion of indigenous voices. Byrne cautioned against polarization, and said, “I echo Alan again. Truth to power.”

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