Many Vermonters have already felt the impact of climate change, and with some of the state’s most iconic industries — including snow sports and agriculture — at risk, the issue has come to the forefront of political debate.
The primary for Vermont’s open U.S. House seat is one of the most watched races in next Tuesday’s election, and voters looking to consider climate change have options. Six candidates are running for Vermont’s open U.S. House seat: three Democrats, two Republicans and one independent who is running on the Republican ballot.
While climate policies vary widely among the six candidates, the two Democratic frontrunners, Lt. Gov. Molly Gray and Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, overlap in their commitment to addressing climate change — and diverge on some of the details.
Both promise to press for investments in renewable energy and making homes more resilient to climate change, for example. But Gray, who has billed herself as a pragmatist, believes she can successfully advocate for climate legislation that will be palatable to a broad range of Washington politicians. Balint, widely seen as the more progressive candidate, says the issue requires “leaders who are willing to go to the mat to make change.”
On one hand, Vermonters appear to have an appetite for bold climate legislation, electing state legislators who have passed bills such as the 2020 Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires Vermont to sharply reduce emissions. Voting records of the state’s federal delegation — U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt. — show consistent support for climate-focused policies.
On the other hand, Vermonters continue to give high marks to Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican who has vetoed many of the climate-focused regulatory bills that have crossed his desk.
Differences in the details
Gray and Balint overlap on many of the broad points of their climate policies. Both have expressed support for the Green New Deal. Both stress the importance of federal funding in Vermont’s efforts to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change. More money is needed, for example, to help Vermonters weatherize homes, install heat pumps and build out infrastructure for electric vehicles, the candidates have said.
Both would support extending the federal investment tax credit, which helps Vermonters install solar panels, and they each have expressed support for modernizing the grid.
Gray and Balint agree that the United States should end subsidies for oil and gas companies. The government has spent around $20 billion of taxpayer funding in direct subsidies to fossil fuel companies per year.
But the candidates diverge when they get into the weeds about the amount fossil fuel companies should pay for their share of the climate crisis.
A difference between her and Balint, Gray said in an interview with VTDigger, is that “my opponent has said, quote unquote, ‘tax the hell out of fossil fuel companies.’”
(In April, Balint wrote on Twitter: “We need to tax the hell out of fossil fuel companies in proportion to the harm they’ve caused. Because the era of their corporate greed needs to come to an end.”)
“While I support eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and I believe that fossil fuel companies do need to pay their fair share, my concern with carbon tax right now is that we, in Vermont, don't have an equitable participation in climate action or climate mitigation,” Gray said.
Not all Vermonters can afford to make the transition to electric vehicles and heat pumps, she said, and she’s concerned the companies could pass on the tax burden to consumers, causing pain at a moment when many are already strapped due to the pressures from inflation.
Instead, Gray, who hopes to serve on the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House if elected, has supported a federal gas tax holiday, an idea criticized by some Democrats who don’t think fossil fuel companies would pass along their savings to the consumer.
Balint, who has also emphasized her concern that lower-income Vermonters can’t yet afford to participate in, or benefit from, a climate-friendly economy, agreed that a carbon tax could be “quite regressive.” Instead, during a debate hosted by Vermont Law and Graduate School, she said she would be “interested in investigating” a carbon dividend, a program that could help Vermonters and Americans reap the benefits of a tax on fossil fuel companies.
A carbon dividend would tax corporations at the source, she said, then return that money “back to people in relationship to where they fall on the economic spectrum.”
Balint points to the money that would come from taxes on fossil fuel companies as a way to fund initiatives that would help people with low incomes participate in a clean energy transition.
“We can do that, we can fund that, by making sure we're actually placing windfall profits taxes on fossil fuel companies, ending subsidies, making sure that we renew the solar tax credit that is about to lapse,” she said.
In written answers to VTDigger’s questions, Balint said she plans to “fight” for the Green New Deal.
“Specifically, I will work to turn elements of the resolution into concrete policy and seek opportunities to build bipartisan support for each discrete element,” she said.
Gray’s support for the Green New Deal appears lukewarm.
“While the Progressive Party and the Progressive Caucus have been champions for a Green New Deal, which I certainly support, I'm willing to take pragmatic, more incremental steps,” Gray told VTDigger.
One of Gray’s major proposals is working to develop a climate workforce through the development and investment in training programs for trades.
Balint also supports investments in workforce development, and said that while addressing climate change, “we must be able to absorb economic dislocations like some factory and plant closings.” She said she would advocate for a Just Transitions Fund, or something similar, “to support the creation and launch of sustainable jobs for workers in some carbon-intensive sectors.”
While Balint commended Vermont’s leadership in deploying renewable energy, she said that leadership “is not without its complications: much of our energy comes from hydroelectric projects in Quebec that have displaced and otherwise impacted indigenous communities.”
Both candidates said they’ll work to create smart partnerships in Congress and advocate for Vermonters.
Balint points to her work in the Vermont Senate, where she was unanimously elected president pro tempore in 2021.
Gray said she’s been heavily influenced by her upbringing on a dairy and vegetable farm that has been impacted by climate change. Her time editing the Vermont Law School’s Environmental Law Journal and her international law background will serve her in the office, she said.
Supporters and stakeholders
Gray isn’t the only person to label her climate proposals as “pragmatic.” Todd Stern, who was the United States’ chief negotiator for the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement under former President Barack Obama, endorsed Gray earlier this spring.
Stern told VTDigger he thinks Gray is uniquely poised to handle the “challenging waters in our politics these days on the Hill.”
Gray fits “the mold, broadly speaking, of people like Leahy and Welch,” he said.
Stern said he hasn’t endorsed other candidates for Congress. He met Gray through mutual connections, he said, and they held an event together earlier this year.
“I’m very impressed by her. I like her. I think she's got, what, for me, is the right kind of pitch,” he said.
Stern said he has “not looked deeply at Becca Balint’s platform on this issue,” but that he takes a “fundamentally pragmatic” approach to policy, which he said is inspired by progressivism. He felt he and Gray shared that perspective.
Gray has also garnered the support of Leahy, who has a record of advocating for environmental protection, and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. A number of agricultural leaders in the state have also backed Gray.
For her part, Balint has won the endorsements of a number of big names in the climate world, including author and organizer Bill McKibben and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., co-author of the Green New Deal. Sanders has backed her, and a number of environmental advocacy organizations have voiced their support, including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) and the Sierra Club.
Paul Burns, executive director of VPIRG, said he supports Balint, in part, because she aims to “make the fossil fuel industry pay its fair share.”
Burns cited times he’s worked with Balint on issues in the Legislature on climate policy, but also on broader environmental, justice and health issues — toxic chemicals, single use plastics and medical monitoring, for example.
“She is thoughtful and kind and listens, and when she agrees with you, she is not afraid to use all of her skills, all of her leadership capacity, to make good things happen,” he said.
Peter Sterling, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, which advocates for the expansion of in-state renewables, said the organization has not formally endorsed a candidate. Sterling contrasted Gray’s tenure as lieutenant governor with her predecessor, David Zuckerman, saying Zuckerman “clearly made environmental issues and climate change a priority.”
“I've never seen Molly Gray really use her office in that same way to elevate environmental or climate issues to the level that Lt. Gov. Zuckerman did, by comparison,” he said.
Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden, dropped out of the congressional race in May and endorsed Balint. She said Balint is knowledgeable about the state’s energy needs and environmental justice. Ram Hinsdale introduced a statewide environmental justice bill, which passed into law last spring.
Outside of the frontrunners, Liam Madden, a Marine Corps veteran who works in the renewable energy field, is one of few to have pitched a plan to address climate change. (Madden identifies as an independent, but he is running as a Republican in the primary.) In a VTDigger debate among the Republican candidates for the seat, Madden advocated for a broader definition of sustainability.
“If we were to use the same amount of economic growth we are already to grow our economy at 3% a year for the next 30 years, we will use the same amount of energy as we have for the last 10,000 (years), and that is impossible,” Madden said. “We need a new economic paradigm.”
Madden said his main focus regarding climate initiatives is expanding into energy sources that have long-term viability. He does not support continued drilling or complete use of solar power and wind energy.
“Republicans, in general, tend to not look squarely in the eye the fact that we have 40 years of oil and gas left at current use, and Democrats tend to not look squarely in the eye that it would take up to 72% of our land” to effectively rely on renewable power through solar and wind energies, Madden said, attributing data to Harvard professor David Keith. Instead, he said he would advocate for nuclear energy.
Louis Meyers, a physician from Rutland running as a Democrat, has expressed support for the expansion of all renewables and nuclear, and he supports President Joe Biden’s recent decision to potentially open new territory for oil and gas drilling.
“Russia has cut off gas and oil to Europe. Europeans are literally going to freeze this winter,” Meyers said during a debate last month on WPTZ. “We have got to help them if we’re going to be able to push back against Russia. We also have to make sure that our own citizens are going to be kept warm, and are going to have enough fuel to survive this winter as well. So I think, in the short term, he’s doing the right thing.”
Anya Tynio, another Republican candidate, said in a June 7 Republican debate on Vermont Public that she intends to do “some very serious research to find the best way forward for climate solutions.” The U.S. does not have the necessary infrastructure to move fully toward electric vehicles, she said in the VTDigger debate.
In response to a question proposed by Madden in the same VTDigger debate, Republican candidate Ericka Redic agreed that nuclear energy was necessary for sustainability, but did not provide a definitive plan to address the climate crisis if elected to Congress.
Redic called for “major reform” to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reduce barriers to building new nuclear plants in the U.S. She attributed high energy costs in Vermont to the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, which was the largest electric generator in the state when it opened in 1972.
In an emailed statement to VTDigger, Redic called addressing consumerism the “most effective strategy” for addressing the climate issue, saying that constant phone and car upgrades by U.S. residents are depleting lesser-known necessary natural resources, such as the cobalt necessary for manufacturing most cellphones, and contributing to unfair labor practices abroad.
Asked what climate policy she would advocate for during a debate on Vermont Public, Redic said she does not “believe it is the role of the federal government to pick winners and losers.”
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