Guest column

The new climate change high command

July 28, 2011

By John McClaughry

Three years ago, then Senate President Peter Shumlin was the lead sponsor of a bill — ardently promoted by the Vermont Public Interest Research Group — to “make global warming the top priority of everything we do, not only in government, but in our own personal and private lives.” Shumlin’s conviction to this peculiar notion is so intense that he later declared, “Any other conclusion is simply irresponsible.”

So much for reasoned debate.

Now, as Governor, having set Vermont state government off on the road to raising $3 billion in new taxes to pay for single payer health care, Shumlin is again turning to his top priority of 2007.

The advocates now describe the issue as “climate change” because Mother Nature dropped the ball on “global warming.”

On May 17, the governor announced establishment of the Vermont Climate Cabinet — composed of nine state officials he appointed. The new body, chaired by ANR Secretary Deb Markowitz, will seek to ensure that “Vermont continues to be a national leader (in addressing) the challenge of climate change.”

The new Cabinet’s primary duty is to “leverage interconnectedness” by coordinating climate change efforts across all state agencies and departments. It will also tend to a long list of informing, strategizing, partnering, promoting, propagandizing, fostering, advising, and of course, federal funding for “climate change mitigation.”

To get some idea of what the nine Shumlin appointees are likely to recommend, it’s worth looking back to the original Shumlin bill of 2008, S.350. That bill actually passed (Act 209), but only after the House — to the intense disappointment of VPIRG and presumably its lead sponsor — had pulled almost all of its teeth.

S.350 proposed to create VPIRG’s desire, a climate super-government with duties equivalent to those of the new Shumlin Climate Cabinet, but with a broader composition. That “climate cooperative” of 2008 would have been charged with supervising a bewildering array of task forces and working groups to produce a host of reports advocating new regulations, controls, mandates, plans, rules, standards, taxes and subsidies.

The bill would also have mandated — and enforced compliance — with a statewide greenhouse gas emission inventory and a state cap and trade program. This latter scheme would require emitters of the dreaded greenhouse gases in excess of a state-determined cap to buy emission tickets from other emitters operating under the cap. The bill prescribed gas-guzzler taxes on vans, SUVs, and pickups to finance subsidies for $41,000 electric cars. These provisions were dropped from the bill that was enacted.

Other complementary proposals either adopted or considered in the past few years were the Clean Energy Development Fund (to be funded by a new tax on electric bills); a Renewable Portfolio Standard, to require utilities to buy electricity from favored producers; a feed-in tariff, to require utilities to pay as much as five times the market price for renewable electricity; and tax benefits for people who install renewable energy systems. Act 168, enacted in 2006, actually declared a state goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to an unimaginable 50 percent below 1990 levels.

Also urged were new subsidies for commuter rail (after the state threw away $28 million on Howard Dean’s now-defunct Champlain Flyer); the Shumlin “thermal efficiency utility” to subsidize businesses to save money on heating fuel; an ever-increasing electricity tax (now at $40 million, on its way toward the $81 million demanded by VPIRG) to expand Efficiency Vermont’s services to more needy people like Green Mountain Coffee Roasters; a carbon tax; stringent building codes to reduce carbon footprints; and Act 250 amendments to put a stop to developments beyond walking distance of work, store and post office.

Now let’s be clear: It makes good sense for families, businesses, and governments to take cost-effective measures to reduce wasteful energy consumption. It makes good sense for vehicle buyers to consider the tradeoffs among speed, weight, power, safety, and fuel consumption. It may make good sense to install a renewable energy system where sun, wind, wood and water are favorable. Free people make those decisions all the time.

What makes no sense at all is this infatuation with the increasingly untenable notion that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions produce any detectable effect on the Earth’s climate — or that any conceivable collection of big brother regulations, taxes, mandates, and subsidies could achieve anything besides turning Vermont into an even less free and more taxed enclave of bureaucracy, servility and economic stagnation.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute, a public policy research and education organization.