Vermont Legislature Passes Bill to Allow Citizens to Sue the State if Climate Change Goals Aren’t Met

The Vermont State House in Montpelier.

The Vermont State House in Montpelier. Shutterstock

 

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Lawmakers say that the bill “ensures accountability” for the government to meet carbon emission reduction goals in a timely manner. But Republican Gov. Phil Scott is skeptical of the litigation provision.

The Vermont legislature passed a bill this week that would require the government to reach certain carbon emission reduction goals in future years and would allow private citizens to sue the state if they fail to meet them. The bill, which does not offer specific methods for reducing emissions, would also create a Climate Council composed of state agency leaders, scientists, and representatives from rural communities and small businesses, among others, who would be tasked with identifying strategies to reduce emissions. 

The Global Warming Solutions Act would require a 26% reduction from 2005 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, in line with the commitment asked by the Paris climate accord. (President Trump removed the U.S. from the climate agreement in 2017, but Gov. Phil Scott, like a number of other city and state leaders, vowed Vermont would still adhere to the goals independently.) Emissions produced in the state would then need to fall at least 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050. As one step in helping achieve these reductions, state agencies would be required to consider greenhouse gas emissions when purchasing equipment, constructing and maintaining new buildings, and designing and operating services and infrastructure.

The goals largely mirror those put forward in the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan from 2016, but the new bill goes one step further by putting pressure on the government to accomplish them or risk lawsuits. 

For years, climate change advocates in Vermont have warned that the state isn’t moving fast enough to accomplish the staggered goals. Vermont emissions have increased in recent years, with 2015 emissions closing out the year 16% higher than 1990 levels, making it the only state in New England where emissions have increased per capita in the last 30 years.

In 2018, the Vermont Climate Action Commission, a group created by Gov. Phil Scott and charged with developing a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, acknowledged that “if Vermont continues its current trajectory—with rising, not declining greenhouse gas emissions—we will not meet these goals.”

“Transforming our state will take a generation or more,” the commission wrote in a report. “To get there we must increase momentum and take meaningful steps forward immediately. There is no silver bullet—no single policy or pathway—that will ensure this necessary transition occurs, so we must begin taking action on multiple fronts to reach our goals.”

State lawmakers this week painted the Global Warming Solutions Act as just that—not a silver bullet, but a critical step in the right direction. During debate on the floor, state Rep. Mary Sullivan, a Democrat, said that “the time to act was decades ago, but better late than never.”

The bill has been a point of contention between the Democratically-controlled legislature and Scott, a Republican who has said that while he supports the intent of the bill, he is opposed to certain provisions, namely the one allowing citizens to sue the government should progress not happen as quickly as planned. “I have … some concerns that have not been met at this point that I think are detrimental to the state,” he told reporters earlier this week. 

Supporters of the bill said that concerns over potential lawsuits are overblown because the bill does not allow a court to award monetary damages to citizens or impose fines on the government, although the state may have to pay legal fees of plaintiffs if they win their suits. Instead, a judge can order the state to comply with the deadlines or to craft new legislation with more stringent requirements to meet the goals. State Rep. Laura Sibilia, who isn’t affiliated with a political party, defended the provision in a recent op-ed where she said that “appealing to the courts is a right citizens have to protect against legislative overreach or administrative failure to enforce the law. It is how we hold our government accountable.”

Scott did not respond to a request for comment as to whether he plans to sign or veto the legislation. Lawmakers in both chambers passed the bill by more than a two-thirds majority, raising the question of whether they will use that majority to enact a veto override.

Julie Macuga, an organizer with the climate justice organization 350 Vermont, said that citizen lawsuits are “one small way” to try and reach big goals like soil regeneration and limits on the fossil fuel industry, but “not enough to reach the goals of our comprehensive energy plan.”

Still, she acknowledged that the legislation is a “good first step.” Her organization was one of 30 that called for the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act in January, along with other climate change mitigation efforts like transitioning the state to 100% renewable energy by 2030. “It’s really exciting to see legislation focused on climate get passed,” she said. “But this should be the floor and not the ceiling in terms of what’s possible.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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