Analyzing State Spending in Response to Climate Change

Featured Image: Greg Casto, Climate XChange. Photos by Noah Buscher and Sasun Bughdaryan

This article was submitted by a member of our State Climate Policy Network (SCPN) — a rapidly-growing program within the organization that includes more than 16,000 advocates and policymakers across the country who are pushing for effective and equitable climate policies in their states. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Climate XChange.

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Authors: Dan Quinlan and Jake Gehrung 

To date, the challenges of climate change (both mitigation and adaptation) have been treated as separate problems by state and federal governments. As time goes on, that approach will clearly prove increasingly unwise — especially in the face of overwhelming data indicating that the United States is far from making the progress required. In the not-too-distant future, state governments must recognize the need to develop comprehensive plans for tackling climate challenges strategically and holistically. These plans will require careful attention to rational allocation of funding for state policy initiatives and programs, and then tracking the resulting impacts.  

In the summer of 2020, SolaVida collaborated with the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Institute on a pilot project designed to begin to address such an analysis — including developing a straight-forward two-part methodology for gathering, organizing, and assessing the information needed. The resulting report, “The Cost of Climate Change In Vermont: Part One – Spending Inventory” established the foundation for a full analysis that would organize and document the spending that underpins the state’s projects and programs.  

The challenges and risks of climate change were categorized into three broad categories: reducing greenhouse gas emissions, addressing climate risks (e.g. storms, flooding, and rising temperatures), and attention to the disproportionate risks to vulnerable communities. The policy areas addressed include energy, transportation, food systems, land use and ecosystems, water management, public health, and economic vitality. 

Findings from the report demonstrate a clear need to direct far more attention to aspects of public health, water management, and the massive vulnerability that some industries face. On the flip side, the pilot study found that most of Vermont’s programs address challenges pertaining to energy and transportation. Yet, like many states, the transportation sector remains the dominant contributor to carbon pollution in Vermont (39 percent, as reported by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation). Issues that are being moderately addressed include food systems and land use. 

“This report has been an extremely helpful body of information as we build our latest Vermont Climate Assessment,” said Gillian Galford, a University of Vermont climate scientist leading the Vermont assessment project. “We’re not aware of a similar study in any other state, and we expect to see this idea replicated across the country.” 

The report also points out the need to carefully examine the level of effort and funding required to embrace the enormous economic opportunities created by the move to a new energy economy, while also planning for climate change impacts that are no longer avoidable. To date, there is essentially no activity within the state government that addresses these opportunities — a glaring and surprising miss. 

Understanding how we are maximizing our current expenditures to make our communities more energy independent and resilient in a warming world is a fundamental starting point. The analysis in this report will help Vermont identify what we can do better with existing revenues and, importantly, what else we must do — and why,” said Johanna Miller, Energy & Climate Program Director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. “And, with the new Global Warming Solutions Act requiring much greater, much needed pollution reduction, adaptation, and resilience-creating progress, this report highlights where we are falling short and the  significant transformation – and investments – required to help all Vermonters thrive in a rapidly changing world.” 

Despite multiple attempts in Vermont to implement a comprehensive approach to the types of questions the report highlights, the actions underway in the state’s government remain an ad hoc patchwork of independent and uncoordinated activities. One can reasonably surmise that this is likely true in every state, except perhaps California.  

Given the funding and time available for the work, the team did not look at the specific allocation of dollars across the more than 110 Vermont state programs identified in the report. A comprehensive view of existing spending is clearly needed. This would provide the second stage of pivotal information needed by all the stakeholders including the Governor’s office, policymakers, advocacy groups, and especially, the public.

Dan Quinlan is the founder of BirchGlade Consulting and the non-profit SolaVida. His focus is on working with people who are passionate about making the world a more humane and healthy home for all people. His work revolves around reducing carbon pollution – through projects in advocacy, communications, and finance – all are designed to help drive the shift to a global new energy economy. Dan holds a BSEE (University of New Hampshire), a MS-Physics (Penn State University), and an MBA Columbia University).


Jake Gehrung is a High-Performance Buildings Analyst with the Resilient Buildings Group. With a strong passion for sustainable communities and combatting climate change, he manages a variety of residential LEED projects and supports a variety of other building efficiency efforts throughout New England. Jake holds a BS in Environmental Science (University of New Hampshire), and LEED AP certification. He is also a graduate of the UNH Sustainability Institute Fellowship program.