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Veto session

07/10/07 12:00AM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST) Yesterday, we heard some advice for legislators on the special veto-override session from commentator John McClaughry. Today we have another perspective from commentator Bill Shutkin.

(SHUTKIN) With the Vermont legislature all set to vote on Governor Douglas's veto of the global warming bill, I've been thinking about the rhetoric surrounding the issue since the bill was introduced in January. From the editorial pages to emails, the important public policy at stake - how and on what schedule will Vermont reduce its reliance on fossil fuels - has often been overshadowed by sarcasm and soundbites. The real debate, if there ever was one, ceased months ago.

On the one hand, many of the bill's supporters chose to immediately put the spotlight on Entergy, whose Vermont Yankee nuclear plant would have been taxed at a higher rate under the bill to fund an expanded energy efficiency program. They couched their claims in a volatile mix of populism and nativism, portraying Entergy as a greedy out-of-state corporation hell-bent on getting while the getting's good while leaving Vermonters with tons of radioactive waste in the process. Omitting the fact that Entergy's the largest employer in southeastern Vermont, and is legally required to store its spent fuel on site, the supporters waged a campaign of corporate destruction against Entergy, with a clear message: If you're an out of state company and the legislature decides to turn against you, take cover.

On the other hand, the bill's opponents, led by Governor Douglas, engaged in their own brand of rhetorical mud wrestling. Until recently, the Administration hadn't bothered to put forward a legitimate global warming proposal, of their own. The Governor seemed to ignore the bill's merits entirely and instead resorted to a diatribe against Big Government, as if the global warming bill were a proposal for some kind of welfare state. Offering little other than buzzwords, the Governor tried to beat the legislature at its own populist game.

My point is not that politics can be a dirty business, or that our leaders are incompetent. It's that great social issues like climate change are tests of our political mettle, touchstones of who we are and what we're made of.

The geographer Jared Diamond argues that societies collapse when they stop thinking about their biological fate and focus only on their cultural survival, when they get so consumed with their belief systems and ideologies they starve to death, as the Norse did in Greenland as a result of deforestation and overgrazing. The Norse refused to eat fish because it was cultural taboo. Instead, they raised livestock until their soil eroded away and with it, their civilization.

With the global warming bill I believe we've gotten lost in our own ideologies. Big Bureaucracy, Bad Corporations - these are rhetorical abstractions. What's really at issue are tangible, finite things: maple sugaring, the ski season, the Northern Forest.

We need to stop behaving like the Norse and start acting like citizens. After all, Vermonters have risen to the occasion before. And besides, given our small, homogeneous population, if we can't do it, who can?

Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT.

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