BRATTLEBORO — A request for the town to declare a climate emergency was rejected Tuesday by the Select Board in a 3-2 vote.
Brattleboro Common Sense had pitched the declaration at two previous meetings, where board members suggested revisions. The group's mission is to "inspire local action on global issues, and to invigorate the political life and maximize the political impact of Brattleboro."
The declaration of climate emergency sought to have Brattleboro strive for zero emissions across all sectors of the economy by 2030, with regular reports from the town's sustainability coordinator. It also would have seen the Select Board warning monthly hearings to hear ideas for "remedies," with the potential for "emergency ordinances."
The proposed declaration called on "today's town leaders to formally acknowledge the truth of the emergency." It quoted presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., encouraging people to look at climate change as if it were "a devastating military attack against the United States and the entire planet." And it referred to United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reporting that global greenhouse gas emissions must be "drastically reduced in order to avoid worldwide catastrophe."
"This action will put Brattleboro right at the forefront of the climate rescue movement as far as municipalities go," Mark Tully, a proponent of the declaration and contractor with Brattleboro Common Sense, told the board before the vote.
Board Chairwoman Brandie Starr and board member David Schoales voted in favor of the declaration. Board Vice Chairman Tim Wessel and board members Elizabeth McLoughlin and Daniel Quipp opposed it.
Starr said she spent a lot of time thinking about how it must feel to be between 18 and 23 years old and wanted young people to "understand the fight that's ahead of them."
Schoales thanked activists for bringing forward the declaration, telling them "the effort you're making here will make things better in this community."
Wessel called the declaration "a mess." He said he had a lot of issues with it including its "vagueness."
"I think it assumes a level of power and authority, and actionable items that we do not possess," he said, noting that the board has acknowledged the crisis of climate change in actions and a prior resolution.
The municipality is getting about 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, Wessel said. The board later authorized town staff to seek letters of interest for the town to participate in projects that will see that figure increase.
"Again, that's a small step but it's a step we actually have control over as a community and as a board," Wessel said. "And I think there's a little bit of a disconnect between this document wanting to save the world and coming to the Select Board with an actual thing that we could support because it's within our powers to do."
Wessel said if the town were to declare an emergency, he would want it to be related to opioids "because people are dying every day in front of us."
McLoughlin said she did not feel it would be responsible for the board to approve the declaration.
"We've already discussed the fact that there's a warmongering attitude about this statement," she said. "It's also a vague anti-government screed."
To collectively affect climate change, she added, "the best thing that we could do is get the voters of New Hampshire to vote out the president. And we can all march and we can cheer and we can do whatever we want but when it comes down to brass tacks, we'll have to vote."
Quipp, a climate activist himself, said he would support a binding commitment for the town to not use fossil fuels by 2030.
"I want to make sure that I'm clear about whose emissions we're talking about," he said. "I don't have control over what you do in your homes."
Quipp questioned whether the board would want to run monthly hearings on top of its other business. He said he feels there are processes in place to propose climate-related projects.
"I think we're not as smart as we think we are and I don't think that we can't know what the effect of this is going to be," Schoales said. "I think we need to give the kids a chance."
McLoughin suggested the person who becomes sustainability coordinator, a new position the board approved in August, could host such talks and town Energy Committee meetings could serve as a venue.
Maia McNeill, climate activist and student at Brattleboro Union High School, told the board the declaration "fosters a sense of participation" on an issue that affects the entire public.
"I am not any more upset with Brattleboro's government than any other government. I want to apologize if I gave that impression at our previous disruption," said Kurt Daims, director of Brattleboro Common Sense, who led a protest during the Aug. 6 Select Board meeting where the board agreed to discuss the declaration at its next meeting. "No shame on Brattleboro or the Select Board if we're all paralyzed. With that being said, I think the paralysis has to be addressed by this declaration."
Getting choked up, Daims told the board he has been walking the streets in the last few months "crying on the shoulders of strangers and they've been crying on my shoulders."
"There is a terrible, terrible need for us to take action on this," he said, calling it "terribly frightening for children to see their parents and governments paralyzed."
Django Grace, youth activist and BUHS student, told the board it is "super hard" for him to make any difference.
"The best I can do is tell an adult to make a difference," he said, adding that the hearings would give youth a voice. "Going into this crisis, I want to have practice I guess."
Grace told the board, "Please don't say you guys are doing enough when you make your arguments. You're not."
In an email Wednesday, Tully told the Reformer board members referring to the declaration as a template from a national coalition misrepresented what Daims said at the beginning of the meeting. He said Daims "ran it by an international declaration-tracking group and incorporated some advice."
Tully said the declaration had begun to be drafted before the Strolling of the Heifers parade and Slow Living Summit in June — where there had been a protest about inaction on climate change organized by members of Brattleboro Common Sense — "with constant rounds of incorporating local input from the public at the expo all the way to two weeks ago."
"The tragic part is that the board's refusal to democratize access to government keeps the incubation of local climate remedies under the purview of a limited socioeconomic and ideological niche," he wrote.
Starr suggested activists could secure enough signatures on a petition to trigger a vote on the declaration at Representative Town Meeting. Town reps vote at annual meetings in March or special meetings.
Brattleboro Common Sense was "not surprised by the vote," Daims wrote in an email, applauding Schoales for standing up for the declaration and the youth but calling Starr out for not allowing what he felt was enough time for discussion.
"On Aug. 20, she allowed eight minutes of background for the sustainability coordinator, and five minutes total for the six young speakers for the declaration; that's an average of 50 seconds per person," Daims wrote Wednesday. "Same kind of deal last night, and both nights didn't even allow the public to hear the proposal read aloud. She says she supports the young protestors who demanded the declaration, but then prevents it from being heard and supported. So, I don't understand that."
Daims wrote that McLoughlin "says the declaration might give young people false hopes and that they should work against Trump instead, and can't see that the declaration success would inspire them to more work, like removing Trump. Talk about false hopes: She wants the sustainability coordinator to handle everything, and we don't have one and might not have one for a long time. So, that's a big delay, and you don't delay an emergency."
Daims said Quipp and Wessel are denying the crisis.
"Only gentle white intellectuals ... have the privilege of denying that the crisis is like a war," Daims wrote, adding that his group "would be happy for substantial objections, and we have taken suggestions from representatives of the [international] coalition, but we are sad to be delayed by denial on the Select Board. We will work to overturn their vote."
Daims said his group will see if it can bring more attention to the declaration at Friday's climate strike.
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.