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Fossil fuel companies can be linked to climate damages, Dartmouth scientist tells Vermont lawmakers

Flood waters completely cover a downtown intersection
Mike Dougherty
Vermont Public
A person uses a kayak to navigate downtown Montpelier during the July 2023 floods.

At a hearing in Montpelier Thursday, Dartmouth climate scientist Justin Mankin told House lawmakers there is robust science linking climate damages to the emissions caused by individual oil companies.

The purpose of the hearing — jointly held by the House Judiciary and House Energy and Environment Committees — was to hear testimony on the Climate Superfund Act, or S.259.

If passed, the bill would require the largest oil companies in the world to pay Vermont a share of what climate change has wrought on the state — and what it will cost to adapt in the future. That share would be based on how much their products contributed to global climate change in recent decades. The bill is modeled after the federal superfund program.

Mankin’s research focuses on climate attribution — which attempts to quantify the link between human action — in this case by fossil fuel companies — and climate change. In recent years, attribution science has also been used to quantify the degree to which heat waves, wind speeds during hurricanes and other extreme weather events were exacerbated by human-caused climate change.

The field is evolving quickly, and for certain types of weather events, there are still unknowns. The link between climate change and tornados, for example, is notoriously challenging to analyze.

But flooding, extreme heat and other impacts of climate change are fairly well understood, scientists increasingly say — and measurably more severe than they would have been absent humans burning fossil fuels.

"The fact of the matter is, we can detect the harm associated with one emitter, and we can do that very conclusively, given very strict scientific standards,” Mankin told lawmakers Thursday.

That could be important for Vermont. Michael O’Grady, legislative counsel, warned lawmakers that if Vermont does pursue a Climate Superfund, the program is likely to be the subject of litigation.

Environmental advocates say that risk is well worth the potential payoff such a policy could provide.

Anthony Iarrapino, with the Conservation Law Foundation, told lawmakers Thursday that Vermont is already seeing the impacts of climate change.

“Those harms are causing costs, and those costs are way beyond the capacity of the state of Vermont to bear alone,” he said, pointing to the cost of disasters like the historic flooding in July, which analysts say caused north of $1 billion in damages. “And so, it’s only fair to spread those costs to those industries that knew the risk of their products, assumed the risk of their products and profited enormously by plowing past those risks.”

Gov. Phil Scott has yet to make a decision about whether to support the bill, but has echoed the concerns of Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) secretary Julie Moore, who said she is not sure the agency has the capacity to do the work on the timeline lawmakers have proposed.

The current bill requires the agency to create a plan for how Vermont will adapt to climate change, concurrent to work already underway to identify places where the state needs to invest more in climate resilience.

The bill also tasks the state treasurer with compiling a tally of what climate change has cost Vermont since the early 1990s — and what it will cost the state to adapt.

Speaking to lawmakers Thursday, Maggie Gendron, deputy secretary at ANR, clarified that the agency does not oppose the legislation.

“It’s important not to lose sight that whatever approach Vermont decides to deploy, it will face a significant level of legal scrutiny and challenge, making it essential that what ANR is tasked with in our analysis — and the work assigned to both the treasurer’s office and the agency — is both thoughtful, robust and well-documented in peer review,” Gendron said.

Senate lawmakers have already extended the deadlines initially set forth in the bill, but ANR says they still need more time, in part because doing this analysis will likely require they contract with national experts to do work agency staff aren’t currently trained to do.

“This is not a question about if we should pursue big oil, but rather about when and how and how to do it in a way that offers the greatest chance of success for the state of Vermont,” Gendron said.

State Treasurer Mike Pieciak said he’s confident his staff can compile an analysis of Vermont’s costs from climate change on the timeline presented in the bill.

He reiterated his support for the policy and for moving forward.

“This damage has happened and these investments need to be made,” he said. “And the question is: Who’s going to pay for those investments? Vermont taxpayers, or the individual entities that caused the damage to exist in the first place and be exacerbated over time?”

The House Judiciary Committee is continuing to take testimony on the bill this week, and the Senate voted 26 to 3 to pass the bill April 2.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.


Corrected: April 11, 2024 at 4:56 PM EDT
A previous version of the photo caption listed the wrong year for the floods depicted. It was July 2023.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.

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