MONTPELIER — Can 600,000 Vermonters slow the effects of climate change?
That was the essential question posed Thursday night before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 during a debate on the merits of imposing a tax on carbon emissions.
During the upcoming legislative session that begins in January, lawmakers are expected to discuss a pair of carbon tax proposals offered by Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, and Rep. David Deen, D-Putney.
Thursday’s discussion was set against the backdrop of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where, next week, Gov. Peter Shumlin will discuss Vermont’s efforts to curb carbon emissions and encourage the creation of renewable energy.
Speaking in favor of a carbon tax were Paul Burns, of the Vermont Public Interest Research Interest Group, and Jon Erickson, an economist and a fellow with the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute.
Speaking in opposition was Rob Roper and John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute.
“Our climate is in dire straits,” Burns said. “It’s being damaged every day by fossil-fuels companies who are making huge profits by throwing their waste into our atmosphere for free.”
He added, “While we are hopeful for what is happening in Paris, we’re not hopeful that answers will come from (Washington,) D.C.”
Roper took issue with the premise of the tax, expressing doubt that a tax on carbon in Vermont will have any effect on the predictions of an overwhelming majority of climate scientists that the carbon entering the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels will result in rising temperatures and more catastrophic storms such as Tropical Storm Irene.
“If the objective is to save the ski and maple industries, or preventing another Irene, a carbon tax is not the solution,” Roper said. “To lead people to believe otherwise, that this is the benefit they will receive for their sacrifice, is fraudulent.”
McClaughry, who has degrees in physics and nuclear engineering and who does not believe the introduction of carbon into the atmosphere has an effect on the climate, noted that China recently issued permits for the construction of 155 coal-fired power plants, any one of them offsetting any reduction in Vermont’s carbon output.
Erickson argued that a carbon tax is the only plan on the table that will enable the state to reach its goals of receiving 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources and reducing carbon emissions by 75 percent of 1990 levels, all by the year 2050.
“I haven’t heard any other plan to reach that goal,” Erickson said. “If not now, then when?”
Roper argued the state should not be in the business of generating its own power, and said efforts to move the state toward renewables will result in ridge lines choked with wind turbines and previously open fields filled with solar panels.
Hearkening back to Vermont being the first state to legalize civil unions in 2000, Burns argued that a carbon tax here might lead other states, and ultimately the rest of the country, to follow Vermont’s lead.
“Throwing up our hands and saying there is nothing we can do is not a solution,” Burns said.