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What the World Can Learn From Burlington and Bernie Sanders

Sanders changed the climate debate this year—but first, Burlington changed him. Now, the city has become a model that should inspire world leaders during the COP22 climate talks.

By Lucia Graves


Senator Bernie Sanders waves to supporters before announcing his candidacy for the U.S. presidency during an event at Waterfront Park in Burlington, Vermont, on May 26th, 2015. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

You don’t get very far in Burlington, Vermont, without noticing that people there do things a bit differently. If you miss the yoga room in the airport, maybe you’ll notice the giant solar panels atop the parking garage outside. In town, the handmade wooden furniture is all locally sourced; the maple syrup on your pancakes comes from a nearby farm. The lakefront aquarium is fairly impossible to leave without becoming an advocate for protecting the ecosystem of Lake Champlain.

This is the city that elected Bernie Sanders its socialist mayor during the Cold War, and the largest city in a state that made him the most popular senator in the country, a title he still enjoys. In May of last year he chose the Burlington waterfront—a waterfront he fought to protect from development—as the backdrop in launching his historic bid for the presidency. While the lake and rolling mountains made for a pretty picture, the city’s values — like those of its policy-obsessed progressive crusader — are less conspicuous but more central to its true identity.

Of course, Sanders didn’t ultimately win the nomination, but an unexpected groundswell of support for his candidacy allowed him to help shape the what is universally regarded as the most progressive national Democratic platform in history. And the radical brand of environmentalism he espoused throughout the campaign — refusing all donations from the fossil-fuel industry; linking climate change directly with terrorism; proclaiming, as climate negotiators celebrated, that the Paris Agreement went “nowhere near far enough” — all that helped propel the global climate debate forward in ways that are still tangible, even after Sanders’ presidential star has dimmed.

Cities produce 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent United Nations report. But they also have more innovative flexibility.

Sanders didn’t quite become the national climate leader that his supporters wanted, but, like him, his hometown is quietly leading the way on sustainability. In 2014 Burlington became the first city in the country to run entirely on renewable energy, powered by biomass, hydro, wind, a dash of solar, and a spirit of public-mindedness. The Burlington Electric Department, the city’s publicly owned utility, has been instrumental in achieving local renewable energy priorities that Burlington, with typical progressive foresight, set decades ago.

“The funny thing about [the renewable record-setting] is it snuck up on us,” says Taylor Ricketts, director of the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics in Burlington. There was no elaborate rollout, and certainly no fireworks. Ricketts was skimming the news one morning when he stumbled upon the announcement that Burlington had reached the 100 percent renewable mark—a fact buried halfway down in a story about a local dam, and began furiously emailing with others in his department. Now he says he still gets a little frisson of pleasure every time he turns on a computer on or flips on a light in his office.

“Renewable energy is so often the luxury choice, you have to seek it out and select that package. It’s true of a lot of sustainability choices,” Ricketts says; “they’re hard to make. And Burlington just ended that.”

There’s nothing magical about Vermont; it’s received no extraordinary gifts of nature. It’s not extraordinarily windier than other places, has no preponderance of current-rich rivers, no tidal-shifting oceans, and it certainly, certainly isn’t sunnier. It gets so cold in the winter, heat efficiency poses a significant problem, leaving BED to hunt for creative solutions around heating.For Ricketts, though, that’s inspiration: “It makes you realize, if Burlington can do it than so can lots of others places, why not Boston or Denver or New York? It’s bigger scale but it’s not about resources — it’s about the political decisions people made.”

Such decisions in Washington, D.C., have been at a standstill for years, so what rare breed of American politics is he talking about? BED general manager Neale Lunderville says that, in his state, such questions can transcend party lines. “It’s kind of a Vermont value that if you’re not for the environment and for sustainable, renewable energy policy, you become quickly unqualified to lead,” he says. As a proud Republican who once worked in the administration of former Vermont governor Jim Douglas, Lunderville would know.

With Burlington’s population of 42,000, the city’s initiative won’t make much of a dent in the climate problemon its own. But, in climate, nothing is ever merely on its own: Burlington matters because it’s an example of what can be done — and of just how easy it can be on residents. As Ricketts puts it: “You don’t have to do anything special to have green power in Burlington. You just have to live there.”

Increasingly, you can live other places too.

A year after Burlington reached its long-held renewable energy goal, and on the heels of the Paris climate talks, the Sierra Club launched the national effort pushing cities to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. “Our mission is to support cities in their goals and make sure we’re raising the bar on Paris,” says Jodie Van Horn, director of the Ready for 100 campaign. Given the state of renewable energy conversations in Washington, she adds, “cities are going to lead the way.”

Beyond those forces, there are also the numbers.

Cities produce 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to a recent United Nations report; the International Renewable Energy Agency, which is hosting a series of panels at COP22 in Morocco, pegs that number as high as 70 percent. They also have more innovative flexibility. “It’s been said that states are the laboratories of democracy,” Burlington’s Lunderville says. “That would make the cities the petri dishes where the action is.”

So far just under 20 cities around the country have signed onto the Sierra Club effort — East Hampton, New York; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Rochester, Minnesota; and San Jose, California, among them: four cities in addition to Burlington, that have succeeded in achieving the 100 percent renewable benchmark. And, while the earliest adopters were typically left-leaning constituencies, Van Horn says increasing she’s finding interest from Republican-run cities.

“No two cities are the same on this,” she says. Each wants to transition for its own reasons.

Leaders in San Diego, California, cite a desire to invest in clean technology, while in Georgetown, Texas, it’s all about saving water and money. A college town just 30 miles from Austin, and one currently on track to reach its 100 percent renewable mark sometime next year, Georgetown is surprisingly conservative. As the interim city manager joked recently: “I’m probably the furthest thing from an Al Gore clone you could find.” That hasn’t deterred them — renewables there make smart economic sense.

The movement is growing, with help from places like the Sierra Club, but it isn’t happening overnight. All the success stories notwithstanding, you can still count the number of cities that have fully transitioned to renewable energy on one hand. And even in Burlington, our renewable poster-child city, the changes took time.

Burlington’s path to renewable glory can arguably be traced back as far as 1905, when the city opted to switch from having a privately owned utility to having a public one (that would be BED). Dean Corren, who was appointed to serve on the utility’s commission in the late 1980s by then-mayor Sanders, notes that global warming wasn’t much part of public consciousness in the 1980s—and the public investment that made shifting to renewables possible didn’t come along until around 1990.

“The real turning point was an $11 million bond, where the voters decided to invest in conservation, rather than in buying parts of outside power plants,” says Corren, who is now the chief technology officer for Verdant Power, Inc., a sustainable energy company focused on underwater hydropower systems. Other critical local developments on renewables, according to Corren, who followed the issue over four terms in the Vermont House of Representatives (1993–2000), include the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the nearby Winooski river (hydro makes up one-third of Burlington’s power), plus innovations around thermal heating. In the early aughts, it was Corren who, as state outreach director for then-Congressman Sanders, helped assemble a regional conference on energy and the environment in Burlington.

In the long run, Corren says, what counts is perseverance: “What makes things like this happen is if the economics are right and the longterm sustainable issues are right, then eventually you might prevail.” But don’t take it for granted, he cautions. “You have to keep at it”

In Burlington, that’s what they’ve done. Today, biomass — specifically, the burning of wood chips at a massive Burlington wood plant known as the McNeil Generating Station — constitutes the city’s greatest source of renewable energy (43 percent). The model makes use of city resources and has proved increasingly economically competitive as the price of fossil fuels have risen. Yet it’s not entirely without controversy. “In the early days wood chips were considered to be totally green,” Corren says. “The truth is, nothing is totally green.”

Releasing the carbon that’s been stored in the wood of trees for tens or sometimes hundreds of years is a lot better than releasing the carbon that’s been stored in fossil fuels for millions of years, he explains,but it’s not as good from a climate perspective as immediately renewable sources like solar or wind. Then there are considerations about where the wood comes from, and how it’s harvested. While the biomass approach has its critics, Corren is quick to note that there are controversies surrounding every source of renewable energy. Not every gripe is equal— but different renewable energies do have different effects, and they don’t always lend themselves well to side-by-side comparison. Hydro is cleaner than biomass, for instance, but it has the potential to disrupt ecosystems. The price of wind and solar has dropped rapidly, but where to build the turbines and installations is politically fraught.

The best insulation from such discontents is a diverse portfolio of renewables, experts say, but also — and maybe more so — to simply use less energy. That might be the greatest values in having a utility that’s publicly run. “Private utilities want to sell you more electricity.” Corren says. “It’s in their interest.”

Another thing Burlington has going for it is its robust activist scene. It’s home to Bill McKibben, unofficially the environmental movement’s organizer-in-chief — and, incidentally, was the sight of the first-ever office for, the pioneering international organization McKibben founded. But, more than anything, it’s the residents that make Burlington stand out.

“You need a strong, passionate core of citizens that want to see changes and will push to see those changes be made,” BED’s Lunderville says. “We have an awesome community — that’s what makes the difference. Period.”

He’s right. All across America, people seem to agree on the awesomeness of Burlingtonians. It’s more than the famously progressive city it’s been stereotyped as by outsiders, the kind of globally minded town where the mayor feels compelled to weigh in on Paris climate talks. In addition, it’s a place with practical solutions for how to go about doing what amounts to the most sensible thing in the world.

Sanders was supposed to be a fringe candidate from a place few average Americans would identify with. In fact, his candidacy— like Burlington itself — has tapped into something surprisingly mainstream: the yearning for politics that go beyond partisan gridlock to realize basic social goods, like protecting the planet we all live on and that our children will live on. It’s politics that operates with a future in mind. It’s being responsible.

We tend to think of Burlington, with its lake-meets-mountain beauty, as the place Sanders made — it’s not. Though he was born in New York and schooled in Chicago, it’s Burlington that made Sanders. And while Vermonters typically lean left or right on different issues (Sanders is the longest-serving Independent in Congressional history, and the state may well see a Republican governor elected on Tuesday), when it comes to climate it’s not a question of which way or whether, but how.

That’s the only question Lunderville’s interested in answering, and, so far, it’s going rather well. “Whether the politicians in Washington want it or not, it’s coming,” he says. “I feel fortunate in Vermont that we’re ahead of it, and I hope that other leaders and other utilities take up the charge.”