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The Douglas Plan

01/17/08 5:55PM By Bill Shutkin
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(HOST)Commentator Bill Shutkin is a writer, lawyer and Research Affiliate at MIT. He thinks that the Douglas 'Climate Change plan' reflects an agrarian ideal that's more suited to the Jeffersonian era than today.

(SHUTKIN) Governor Douglas's climate change plan, now in play in the new legislative session, sounds more like an ode to pastoral living than modern public policy. The plan's centerpiece - a new certification system for carbon offsets - relies heavily on Vermont's image as a "green state," believing that people will pay a premium to have Vermont's seal of approval on their offset purchases - as they would on a jar of maple syrup. The plan also provides a starring role for Vermont's forests, a big part of that green image, casting them as the carbon-absorbing cornerstone of the state's future greenhouse gas reduction efforts.

But the trouble is - as I see it - that in formulating a climate strategy based largely on the "Green Mountain brand," the Douglas plan presents a pre-industrial, almost romantic approach not only to the business of combating global warming but to Vermont's economy as a whole.

In his landmark book, The Machine in the Garden, the scholar Leo Marx wrote about the tension in early America between the country's rural, agrarian roots and the coming technological, industrialized age. With the advent of new machines like the steam engine, Marx argued, the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of virtuous yeoman farmers had to make way for a new story, a new image, one that reconciled the rural and urban, the pre-industrial and the technological.

In the Douglas plan, Vermont's future, and its climate strategy, lie not in finding the sweet spot between the pastoral and the modern, the forest and the factory, but rather in continuing to embrace an ecological self-image that is based largely on a romantic, Arcadian vision.

Which may explain why the plan seems to ignore what is, by many accounts, Vermont's most powerful climate protection tool: Efficiency Vermont. There's nothing romantic about the program. Efficiency Vermont is all about the nuts and bolts of energy conservation, like insulating drafty crawl spaces, swapping out incandescent light bulbs and replacing inefficient appliances. Where the Douglas plan relies on symbolic measures like branding and certification, Efficiency Vermont is about tangible results, prompting many in the legislature and Douglas's own Climate Change Commission to recommend expanding the program beyond electrical efficiency to include heating fuels. Through an expanded program, Vermont could make substantial gains overnight in reducing our own greenhouse gas emissions while providing real cost savings to Vermont homeowners and companies alike.

To build a new Vermont economy driven by green businesses and the pressing challenge of climate change, we need to rely less on Vermont's brand and more on our proven ingenuity. Expanding Efficiency Vermont would be a solid first step in putting entrepreneurial substance ahead of imagery in the fight against climate change. And with January's cold winds upon us, there's no time like the present.
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