By Sophia Eppolito
Boston University Statehouse Program
BOSTON – Massachusetts has been a leader when it comes to environmental legislation but, in the wake of a federal report detailing the impact of climate change, many local activists say there is more to be done.
The report predicted the average global temperature is much higher and rising more rapidly than ever before in modern society. It also forecast continued rising temperatures and sea levels, resulting in more frequent flooding, wildfires, as well as the spread of food- and water-borne illnesses.
Climate change has become an issue of heightened importance in recent years, especially for Massachusetts voters. In a WBUR poll from 2017, 88 percent of registered voters in the state said they were concerned about climate change, up from 77 percent in 2011.
Massachusetts became one of the first states in the country to legislatively address climate change with a regulatory program. In 2008, the Global Warming Solutions Act was signed into law, requiring the state to lower greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.
The 2020 projected limit for greenhouse gas emissions for Massachusetts is 70.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. From 2008 to 2012, emissions dropped from 87.9 million metric tons to an all-time low of 72.1 million metric tons, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. However, the amount of emissions has started to creep back up in recent years and was most recently reported at 76.3 million metric tons in 2015.
The state is ranked No. 1 for energy efficiency, but environmental advocacy groups have consistently given Gov. Charlie Baker a C grade for his administration’s work on environmental issues. In the groups’ third annual report, which was released June 2018, they noted a “lack of leadership and action” in areas related to electricity maintenance and the utility market.
“Accommodating the utilities has left both consumers and the environment less protected,” the report read. “The governor should lead by saying to these important actors: how can the state help you to shape your business so that we can meet our mandates to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions?”
Sen. Marc Pacheco, D-Taunton, chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, said the federal report further emphasizes the importance of fighting climate change at the state level.
“We only have a few years left to do what we need to do as a collective society in America,” Pacheco said. “In doing that work, it’s great to talk about goals and standards you wish to achieve, but if you don’t actually implement specific work that gets you there to those goals, then it becomes a hollow promise in terms of where you optimally should be as a commonwealth.”
Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, said because Massachusetts is a smaller state in size and economy than a state like California, it would be easier for other states to replicate its policies as some have done in health care and other areas.
“It’s more incumbent upon a state like Massachusetts to lead in my opinion,” Norton said. “It’s also important because folks are still trying to figure out what the answers are … If you look at gay marriage, if you look at [health care], we are a state that does lead on issues that then other states follow.”
Pacheco said the Legislature should be “embracing a renewable energy future” by further prioritizing offshore wind power, solar energy, and energy efficiency.
He added because environmental legislation can often fall by the wayside for issues related to education or public health, the executive branch needs to prioritize the issue. The Senate committee will be scheduling oversight hearings with the executive branch to discuss the report’s findings later this month.
“I think a lot of it is not wanting to make any decision that could either be popular or unpopular during a political season but that political season is over and now we’ve got to get about the season of governing again,” Pacheco said. “There’ll be dozens and dozens of issues that will come before the Legislature and the question to all of us in the Legislature will be what issues are you going to take up and I believe this issue should be our No. 1 priority.”
Katie Gronendyke, a spokeswomen for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said the Baker administration will continue its work in pursuing climate change issues, including boosting hydropower and offshore wind energy.
“The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to working with our federal, regional and local partners to develop effective policies using the best science and data available to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and safeguard residents and communities from extreme weather, sea level rise, inland flooding and other climate impacts,” Gronendyke said in a statement.
Craig Altemose, the executive director of Better Future Project, said his organization, which focuses on statewide grass root movements, is planning to introduce a Green New Deal bill that would require 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. He said they’re planning for their social strategy to be making it “politically toxic” for politicians to accept money from the fossil fuel industry.
“Our assessment is that we cannot outspend the industry, but one thing we do have is that we have more people,” he said. “You saw a similar thing in the ‘90s with tobacco.”
For Altemose, the focus has shifted from prevention to adapting to the new environment that climate change is likely to bring with it.
“The truth is that we are going to have massive societal disruption one way or another,” said Altemose. “There is no third option of gradually continuing to make minor improvements and have a happy ever after. That option was on the table 30 years ago, but we have delayed and dithered and that option is no longer on the table.”