This commentary by state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, originally appeared Jan. 10 in the Manchester Journal.
I believe greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are contributing to more volatile and a warmer climate. Scientific predictions and evidence of higher temperatures are persuasive. It makes sense that the increase in man-made fossil fuel greenhouse gas emissionssince the beginning of the Industrial Revolution would generate changes in weather and climate through complex feedback mechanisms. While Vermont’s emissions are a tiny fraction of the global amount, we all have a responsibility as stewards of the earth to mitigate these potentially destructive changes.
Aside from climate change, there are other good reasons to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Particulate air pollution from burning them is a health hazard to our lungs, and extraction, transport, and processing cause air, water and land pollution.
We therefore need to reduce fossil fuel use by investing in energy efficiency and conservation – which is useful in lowering immediate costs aside from climate change issues — and by switching to renewable energy sources as feasible. Reducing current use is imperative, but it is of utmost importance that our investments in equipment now reduce greenhouse gasses in the future. Since our emissions are largely from transportation and heating, the vehicles we buy, the furnaces we install, the weatherization we undertake, and the renewable energy we create are key. We will also need to invest in community preparations for more volatile weather.
We need state policies to provide incentives and requirements so that we alter our behavior. The market economy we operate includes only immediate private costs. It does not include short run pollution or long run climate change costs in the prices of fossil fuels, with the result that lower prices mean we use more than we should. Our political system tends to have a short run bias – politicians often don’t look beyond the next election, so to impose certain costs in order to achieve expected future benefits can be difficult. The influence of special interests opposing such policies makes it even harder.
As an economist, and as an environmentalist, I am committed to the development of policies to reduce our greenhouse gasses. Policies should phase in requirements to give people time to adjust. Any revenue raised through taxes or licenses that raise the costs of fossil fuels should be used in two ways. One is that some other tax should be reduced to offset the revenue. A second is that the additional revenue should be re-distributed to working Vermonters and small Vermont businesses to help them make the needed investments in transportation and heating equipment, and to communities to develop weather resilience. Such policies could be both effective in reducing our use of fossil fuels and equitable in supporting those who need help bearing the costs of change.
The Vermont Legislature will be considering at least two approaches to mitigating climate change. One is call the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). This regional policy framework has distributors bidding on a limited number of licenses to sell fossil fuels. The costs of the licenses would increase fuel prices, which would reduce our use of them. The revenue from the licenses would come to the participating states for investments in transportation and heating capacities, with a special emphasis on helping low-income Vermonters.
The other approach is called the Global Warming Solutions: mandatory goals for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by a certain amount by a certain date are put into law. State agencies would develop plans to meet these mandates.
Each of these approaches has strengths and weaknesses. As with so many legislative initiatives, the details and the timing of changes will be important in determining whether they meet my criteria for effectiveness and equity. I will be working to ensure that these policies will make us both safer and stronger.
State Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) represents Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and part of Sunderland in the Bennington-4 district.