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Group solicits local input on global issue of climate change

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2015-08-30

By Kevin O'Connor, vtdigger.org: http://vtdigger.org/2015/08/30/group-solicits-local-input-on-global-issu...

A new Vermont Climate Change Economy Council is asking the public how the state can simultaneously grow the local “green” job market and curb global warming. But first it must educate people questioning the group itself.

“There’s nothing politically correct about what we’re trying to do,” says Paul Costello, executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Vermont Council on Rural Development that’s spearheading the effort. “It’s a working team that’s looking at the issues of climate, the environment and the economic opportunities for the state. We’re trying to create a platform for action.”

To do so, the Climate Change Economy Council — composed of two dozen business, public policy and environmental leaders — launched a series of regional public forums this past week. But it spent much of its first listening session Wednesday at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre telling an audience of nearly 75 people just what it was — and wasn’t.

“The council is a totally nonpartisan group that is made up of people of all different political and economic persuasions,” said William Sessions, a federal district court judge, who chairs the group. Members of the council range from Green Mountain Power President Mary Powell to Vermont Natural Resources Council Director Brian Shupe to state Transportation Secretary Sue Minter.

Such prominent names have caused some people to post such online questions as “Is this a lobbyist group? Who’s paying for this? Who’s the financial beneficiary?”

The nonprofit “neutral” effort, Costello said, springs from his federally authorized Council on Rural Development, which for two decades has engaged government, business and civic partners in collaborations “to address critical community concerns,” according to its website, vtrural.org.

VCRD has led policy efforts in agricultural development, energy generation, the creative and digital economies, community organizing and, most recently, the Council on the Future of Vermont, which surveyed almost 4,000 people at more than 100 local meetings in 2008 before unveiling the 112-page report “Imagining Vermont: Values and Vision for the Future” in 2009.

“We’re not interested in presenting a report and stepping away,” Costello said upon publication of the Future of Vermont findings. “When Vermonters have expressed their values, someone needs to say, ‘How do you build a plan that’s really going to change things?’”

Costello speaks from experience: Past reports on the state’s future not only are part of its history but also helped shape it.

The one-time Vermont Commission on Country Life, formed after the disastrous flood of 1927, funneled its discussions into a report that called for the creation of the state police and enlargement of the state Board of Education.

In 1968, the state’s first modern Democratic governor, Philip Hoff, chaired the Vermont Planning Council whose “Vision and Choice – Vermont’s Future” study helped spur the pioneering Act 250 land-use law.

In 1988, the state’s first female governor, Madeleine Kunin, created the Governor’s Commission on Vermont’s Future that sparked the Act 200 growth management law.

After the most recent Future of Vermont study, Costello and colleagues decided to focus on what current-day Vermonters mentioned most — the state’s “working landscape.” In 2010, the VCRD launched a Working Lands Enterprise Initiative that now grants $1 million annually to help residents diversify the farm and forestry industry.

Such investment seeds individual businesses. But with the entire state facing economic and environmental challenges, the VCRD decided to expand its efforts by announcing its climate change initiative last October and holding an introductory summit — a 400-person “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change” event — at Vermont Technical College in Randolph this past February.

“Many worry that addressing climate change can undermine jobs and diminish economic opportunity,” council organizers noted in one internal document. “Confronting climate change through innovative economic development, however, can be a competitive strategy, one that will build national reputation, create jobs, and attract youth and entrepreneurism to the states that lead.”

At the summit, the Climate Change Economy Council explained it would spend the rest of this year collecting and sharing recommendations through public forums before producing a “practical plan to reduce carbon emissions and stimulate economic development” in time for another statewide meeting next February.

“It’s not a partisan goal — it’s where is Vermont going to be in the future and can it respond in a very constructive, positive way so we all can benefit economically from change?” Sessions said in Rutland Wednesday. “We’re here to listen to you.”

Government and business leaders at the forum spoke in support of the effort.

“There are two realities we need to accept,” Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras said. “One is the climate is changing. You can argue to the reasons why, but the reality is more intense storms are happening more often. The second reality is we are no longer in a 1960s or 1980s economy. Our economic efforts need to be developed with a 21st century model.”

Audience suggestions ranged from the specific (add more trains for public transportation, one man asked) to more esoteric (eliminate fluoride from water supplies, one woman advised). Others spoke less of new programs and more of promoting existing ones, be it through increased publicity or political support.

“Solar developers are beginning to avoid Vermont because our bureaucratic processes are becoming increasingly difficult,” one man said. “We have a great ability to create new ideas. But as these ideas gain scale, we get pushback.”

The Climate Change Economy Council has scheduled two more listening sessions on Oct. 6 at Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre and Oct. 29 at Burlington City Hall, with each starting at 7 p.m. It also will seek and share “climate innovator” stories on its Vermont Climate Change Economy Facebook page.

Kevin O’Connor, a former staffer of the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, is a Brattleboro-based writer. Email: kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com