MONTPELIER — In a pre-session pep rally for the 96-member Democratic caucus he’ll captain over the next two years, House Speaker Shap Smith focused his call to arms Saturday on an issue of rising profile in Montpelier: climate change.
A family vacation to Alaska over the summer, the House’s top Democrat said later, offered a view of the ecological symptoms of a problem “we cannot really even comprehend.”
“I was really profoundly influenced by my trip to Alaska, and seeing the impact of climate change and hearing from people what it’s going to mean there,” Smith said. “And it just made me realize we’re not putting enough focus on something that could completely change our planet.”
While diminishing Vermont’s carbon footprint might not put a dent in emissions globally, Smith said the Green Mountain State must nonetheless become an exemplar of energy responsibility.
“We are going to have to make very, very difficult choice choices around issues that involve our climate and climate change, and how it’s going to impact not only our economy but the way we live and the way our state looks,” Smith said. “We can’t shy away from it because other people are. We can’t say that because the rest of the country is deciding not to take action, that we will not.”
Smith’s speech came during House Democrats’ first caucus since they increased their ranks by two members in the November elections.
Smith, a five-term representative from Morrisville expected to win re-election to the speaker’s post handily when the full body reconvenes Jan. 9, said Vermont needs to play the same early-adopter role on climate change that it has on issues of social justice.
“We only have to go back less than 15 years, when it was unheard of to think that you could have (same-sex) civil partnerships,” said Smith, referencing the civil union law passed here in 2000.
Less than 15 years later, Smith said, a majority of citizens in three states — Maine, Maryland and Washington — voted to give same-sex couples the right to marry.
“We showed them the way here,” he said. “If we can do it on that, we can do it on climate change.”
Smith isn’t the only high-profile politician sounding the alarm on climate change in Vermont, where elected officials, unlike many of their counterparts nationally, have found the issue to be an electoral winner.
In his address to House Democrats on Saturday, Gov. Peter Shumlin listed energy as one of the five primary issues next year, along with the budget, health care, education and high-speed Internet. Shumlin said his focus on energy is driven by his grave concerns about the impact of carbon emissions on the climate.
“Whether it’s Irene or Sandy or forest fires or extraordinary droughts … (climate change) is the single-biggest challenge the world faces,” Shumlin said. “I keep saying it’s also the single-biggest opportunity.”
The issue, according to Shumlin and Smith, will drive legislative proposals ranging from subsidies for renewable energy technologies to an expansion in home weatherization programs.
A plan to boost funding for thermal efficiency — a task force will unveil its recommendations next month — already looks to have some support from Shumlin and Smith, though they may differ on how to pay for it.
“Were doing abysmally in thermal efficiency,” Shumlin said. “Let’s find a way to work together in the next two years to catch up and do better so we’re not sending our oil and heating fuels out of our windows and doors and the dollars to countries that mostly do not like us.”
Smith said he also wants to find ways to improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles driven in Vermont.
“We, I think, are on the cusp of a tipping point in the efficiency of our transportation fleet and moving that toward a more efficient fleet,” Smith said. “I’d like to see if there are ways we can push that along.”
With House Majority Leader Lucy Leriche retiring in January, the caucus on Saturday voted to promote Assistant Majority Leader Willem Jewett to take over the leadership post. In a rare contested race for assistant majority leader, Rep. Tess Taylor, of Barre City, defeated Rep. Rebecca Ellis, of Waterbury, by a count of 49-37.
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