An Open Letter to the Massachusetts House Leadership: Time for Climate and Energy Action

, senior energy analyst, Clean Energy | July 10, 2018, 4:38 pm EST
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Honorable Robert DeLeo, Speaker of the House; Honorable Ronald Mariano, Majority Leader; Honorable Patricia Haddad, Speaker pro Tempore; Massachusetts State House, Boston, Massachusetts

Dear Speaker DeLeo, Leader Mariano, and Speaker pro Tempore Haddad,

I know this is a busy time for you, but I was hoping for a few minutes of your attention.

I’m directing this note to the three of you because you’re particularly well positioned, as the #1, #2, and #3 in the House of Representatives, to make a difference on some really big opportunities (and needs) having to do with climate and clean energy. I’m also reaching out because, as a new analysis on tidal flooding projections from my colleagues here at the Union of Concerned Scientists shows, your hometowns stand to lose more than most from a stay-the-course mentality on addressing carbon pollution. The connection between your leadership and limiting climate impacts should be plenty clear.

Seawalls do the trick against king tides, but only up to a point (Credit: MyCoast.org)

What floods may come

First, on the new analysis: The study, Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate, combines data on accelerating sea level rise (due mostly to climate change) with data on property values. It looks at high tide flooding, and specifically at properties at risk of “chronic inundation,” meaning having flooding high tides at least 26 times a year. And it figures out the overall financial value of our homes and businesses at risk in coastal communities.

The Underwater results for Massachusetts are “quite sobering.” As soon as 2045—just around the temporal corner—that chronic inundation from high tides threatens some 7,000 homes, worth a total of more than $4 billion today. For the Bay State communities themselves, that’s some $37 million today in annual property tax revenues from those homes at risk. Commercial properties add another $1 billion to the total at risk.

While you each have statewide responsibilities given your leadership positions, you don’t even have to look beyond your own towns to see some “sobering” numbers of your own:

  • In Winthrop, Mr. Speaker, just by 2045, at-risk houses have values currently totaling $160 million, with associated at-risk property tax revenues of more than $2.3 million per year. Add in Revere, and the totals are $535 million in value and $7.7 million in revenues, all at risk—higher, even, than Boston’s.
  • In Quincy alone, Leader Mariano, 2045 could see threats to homes valued at $327 million, and threats to tax revenues of $4.6 million annually.
  • For you, Madam Speaker pro Tempore, the value of Swansea, Dighton, Somerset, and Taunton homes at risk by 2045 adds up to $7.6 million.
  • Revere and Quincy have the dubious distinction of capturing two of the top three slots for number of homes at risk in Massachusetts, at 1,105 and 659, respectively (and Winthrop comes in at #6, with 440).

The longer-term picture, for coastal communities in the country as a whole and for Massachusetts specifically, are much more startling, particularly under scenarios with more climate change (based on higher emissions of heat-trapping gases like CO2).

Those regular floods are more than a nuisance, and homeowners, businesses, and communities will have to react. As my colleague Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a coauthor of the new UCS analysis, has said, different communities will be affected differently:

Some may see sharp adjustments to their housing market in the not-too-distant future; some could see a slow, steady decline in home values; and others could potentially invest in protective measures to keep impacts at bay for a few more decades.

All of those options hit the wallets of the homeowners and business people, hurt the finances of the affected communities, and affect people who depend on those areas for their livelihoods. Not reacting isn’t an option.

Keep Winthrop strong (credit: Flickr.com/acme401)

Leadership past and future

That, then, forces us to consider what we’re doing to change that longer-term picture. And that in turn brings us around to your positions as leaders of a key chamber of the legislature.

Last session, under your leadership, and with the senate, Massachusetts passed some pretty impressive stuff in the clean energy space. Your passion for offshore wind in particular, Rep. Haddad, gave us a nation-leading offshore wind target that the state is moving quickly to implement. And there was that strong requirement for long-term contracts for power from hydro or wind facilities, and more.

But you know that some stuff got left on the table, or in need of fixing. You set in motion a strong push for renewable energy, but the final version of the 2016 energy diversity bill failed to include the pull of the renewable portfolio standard that should have been paired with it. Rep. Haddad’s “Act to increase renewable energy” (H4575) looks to correct that.

Our state’s strong solar industry got a brief boost in 2016 legislation, but the thousands of hard-working Massachusetts solar workers and companies—and Massachusetts customers—quickly overran the new target that legislation had put in place. Plus the “fix” made it even harder for low-income households to get hold of solar’s direct benefits, by cutting the value of community solar. H4577 would help to address part of that, particularly if it includes amendments borrowed from other bills to fix access issues.

And other pieces make even more sense now, as technologies and markets have evolved (think energy storage and electric vehicles, for example).

That brings us to the present day. The Massachusetts climate/energy to-do list won’t be a surprise, since you and your colleagues have been hearing about it, including via thousands of messages from UCS supporters. It includes:

  • Strengthening the RPS, to levels that other states have figured out constitutes the necessary leadership (think 50% by 2030).
  • Getting solar growing again, with special attention to lower-income would-be customers.
  • Investing in energy storage, to strengthen our electricity grid and position us to deal with the peak demand times—and to keep the dirtiest power plants firmly in the OFF position.
  • Pushing energy efficiency to the next level, so that Massachusetts homes and businesses can do more with less.
  • Keeping electric vehicles moving and accelerating, so that we’re tackling transportation emissions—now our #1 source of carbon pollution—head on.

There’s more to it than that, but these are the pieces that are in front of you right now, or in front of the House Ways and Means Committee. And, as you well know, given the need to work things out with your counterparts in the senate, this is the week for action.

Connecting the dots

It’s not hard to connect the dots between the recent UCS analysis and your actions over the next few days. Indeed, it’s hard not to connect the dots.

Under your leadership, we can choose a path that ramps up Massachusetts’s contribution to addressing the climate change that is affecting your communities, your neighbors, your constituents; a path that drives job creation and innovation; a path that addresses the pollution that hits vulnerable communities the hardest.

Or we can opt instead to wait and see what we’ve got. Let Massachusetts’s solar industry limp along and hope that other jobs await those who lose theirs. Accept power plant pollution and its inequitable distribution because that’s the way it has always been. Roll with the tide—literally—when it hits again, and again.

But let’s face it: that second one really isn’t a credible option. The challenges—and opportunities—mean that these are times that call for innovation, equity, and ambition.

And you have the motivation, and the power, to make it happen. So that when high-tide flooding hits even on sunny days, or other impacts become more and more apparent, and your constituents are looking for answers, you’ll have those answers. Not just about adapting to those challenges, but about hitting them head on, putting all the pieces in place to make sure that we, right here in Massachusetts—and in Winthrop, Quincy, and Somerset—are doing our part, and then some, to contribute to global efforts to limit climate change.

The bills on clean energy, energy storage, and clean transportation before Ways and Means and before the full house need your support to get over the finish line, in the strongest forms possible.

So thank you for your leadership. We’re counting on it, including over the next few days.

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