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Vermont Conversation: Peter Welch on climate change-fueled disasters and democracy in the crosshairs

Jul 19, 2023

“This is all about climate change,” Welch said of the flood devastation that he observed last week.

Sen. Peter Welch listens as firefighter Will Perkins talks about recent flooding in Weston, at the Weston Volunteer Fire Department, Saturday July 15, 2023. Photo by Zachary P. Stephens/VTDigger

Vermont Sen. Peter Welch spent last week touring his flooded state and assuring residents that help was on the way. Welch has a lot of practice with this. First elected to Congress in 2006, he experienced Vermont’s first so-called 100-year flood following Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

In Irene’s aftermath, Welch fought with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to enable Vermont to rebuild roads and bridges to withstand the new realities of climate change instead of being forced to replace the shattered infrastructure with the same inadequate design and materials.

“This is all about climate change,” Welch said of the flood devastation that he observed last week. “It’s astonishing to me, but there’s a lot of people resisting acknowledging that we have to act and act quickly to address climate change. And I think that does not reflect denial. I think it reflects desperation to try to hang on to whatever fossil fuel interests that some of my colleagues represent. And (it) reflects a fear about making the transition from a carbon-based economy to a clean energy economy because it is disruptive.”

Welch returned to Washington on Tuesday to give his debut speech on the Senate floor. In that speech, he outlined his two top priorities as senator: “Our challenge is strengthening our democracy and improving the living standards for everyday Americans. … If we don’t do both, we won’t do either.”

In a wide-ranging Vermont Conversation interview with Welch, we discussed his visit to flood-stricken parts of Vermont, the fragile state of democracy and the surprising common ground that the progressive Vermont Democrat has found with far-right Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Welch remains guarded in his assessment of the fate of American democracy. 

“It’s a jump ball,” he said. “Jan. 6 was of course the most vivid manifestation of the erosion of democratic norms. … But you’re seeing many of the candidates running for Senate and for Congress — and of course (Donald) Trump running again for president — who were in denial about the outcome of the last election or peddling ‘the election was stolen’ lie.

“The reason I think is so important for our democracy to work is that’s the tool that we use to address the challenges that Americans face.” 

Story Written and Podcast Recorded by David Goodman, The Vermont Conversation with David Goodman

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