Republicans, Democrats, and Climate Change: A Success Story in Massachusetts

September 19, 2016 | 12:52 pm
Ken Kimmell
Former President

Conventional wisdom holds that the politics of climate change has become so polarized that bipartisan action is all but impossible.

Massachusetts has just deflated that balloon.

In July, the democratically-controlled legislature passed—and the Republican Governor Charles Baker signed—an energy bill that promises to bring more than 3,000 megawatts of clean energy into the state, mainly from offshore wind and imports of hydropower from Canada. This bill is a major advance for clean energy in the state, even though it left out some important issues for future work.

On Friday, Governor Baker issued an executive order establishing an “Integrated Climate Change Strategy for the Commonwealth.” This executive order picks up the pieces of work left out of the energy bill, complies with legal requirements recently clarified by the state Supreme Court, and builds upon the admirable climate legacy of Governor Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick.

While an executive order does not  have the force of law, if it is fully implemented, Governor Baker will have set a strong national example of bipartisan collaboration on the most urgent challenge of our time.

Here are the big takeaways:

1. No climate change denial or excuses for inaction.

The executive order states clearly that climate change is occurring, is caused by human sources, and is a challenge that must be addressed now. Here, a Republican governor has fully aligned his position with the overwhelming scientific consensus.

2. We need to do more to reduce transportation emissions.

Pollution from cars and trucks is now the largest source of carbon emissions in Massachusetts, responsible for over 40 percent of the state’s annual global warming pollution. As the executive order notes, it’s also the only sector of our economy whose emissions have actually grown since 1990, as increases in total driving outpace gains in fuel efficiency.

Governor Baker promises to respond to the challenge of transportation emissions in two ways.

First, he instructs the Department of Environmental Protection to set “declining annual aggregate emissions limits” on the transportation sector. This means that the state will determine specific limits on emissions from this sector, and those limits must decline every year.

Second, Baker promises to work with states in the Northeast to develop a regional program to reduce emissions from transportation. One reason northeast states have made so much progress reducing emissions from electricity is that they participate in a regional program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which caps emissions from the electric sector. Five states and the District of Columbia recently agreed to explore a similar program covering transportation emissions; this executive order suggests that the Baker administration will support those efforts.

3. Massachusetts needs to prepare for a changing climate.

This was the hottest (and driest) summer ever recorded in Massachusetts. As a low-lying, coastal state, Massachusetts is highly vulnerable to climate change, including stronger storms and tidal flooding.

One piece of legislation that didn’t make it into this summer’s energy bill was a bill to create a Comprehensive Adaptation Management Plan for the state. Governor Baker’s executive order promises his own Climate Action Plan that will include a statewide adaptation strategy analyzing the state’s vulnerabilities in a changing climate and addressing how to protect state resources.

4. New emissions limits for 2030 and 2040.

The Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act sets the clear goal of deep, economy-wide reductions in emissions by the year 2050—to 80 percent less than 1990 levels. In the nearer term, Massachusetts has committed to a 25 percent reduction compared with 1990 levels by 2020, but the state has yet to set interim emissions limits for 2030 and 2040 as the law requires. Governor Baker’s executive order addresses that with a promise to set a new mandate for 2030 by the end of the year 2020.

5. Meeting energy needs by promoting efficiency

Finally, Governor Baker promises a comprehensive statewide energy plan that will prioritize energy efficiency over new fossil fuel infrastructure. With a commitment to low-carbon energy secured through the energy bill, this is the right approach.

Massachusetts is a small state, but it is often the progenitor of big ideas. Here, the big idea is that two political parties can successfully work together to address global warming. Take a breath, and imagine what the United States could accomplish if this idea were to spread.