State environmental official resigns over climate comments

Ismay apologizes for ‘inability to communicate clearly’ in recent remarks

THE STATE’S UNDERSECRETARY of environmental affairs for climate change, who has come under fire for comments made to an environmental panel last month, resigned his post Wednesday night. 

David Ismay, in a letter dated Wednesday to Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, wrote, “It is with great regret that I submit my resignation, effectively immediately.” 

Ismay became the focus of attacks from the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative advocacy group, which pointed to comments he made last month to the Vermont Climate Council in which he zeroed in on the need for Massachusetts residents to change their energy use practices in order to achieve significant reductions of carbon emissions in the state. 

In comments during a Zoom conversation with the Vermont state panel, Ismay said 60 percent of all carbon emissions in Massachusetts are tied to residential heating and passenger vehicles. To achieve the state’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050, he said, 3 million homes need to transition to clean energy and 5 million vehicles need to be replaced with zero emission cars.

“There is no bad guy left, at least in Massachusetts, to point the finger at, turn the screws on, and break their will so they stop emitting,” Ismay said, apparently referring to big industrial or commercial sources of emissions. It comes down to “you and me,” he said, to “the person across the street, the senior on fixed income.” 

“We have to break your will,” Ismay said, adding in the recorded conversation, “I can’t even say that publicly.”

Mass. Fiscal slammed Ismay’s comments and called for his ouster. The group’s spokesman, Paul Craney, said it was “frightening to think an official so high up in the Baker administration is bragging to an out-of-state group about the economic pain he wants to inflict on the very people who he’s supposed to work for.” 

Asked about the comments last week, Gov. Charlie Baker said, “no one who works in our administration should ever say or think anything like that, ever.” Baker denounced Ismay’s comments again this week, and brushed aside a suggestion that Ismay had merely stated, with poorly chosen words, the fact that environmental gains to combat climate change will involve tradeoffs and some costs that will be borne by residents.  

The Baker administration’s Transportation Climate Initiative, for example, will lead to increases in the retail price of gasoline. 

“The comment on that video last week did not speak for the administration in terms of tone, substance, style, or anything else,” Baker said on Wednesday. “No one speaks for me if they say this one is going to be the loser and this one is going to be the winner,” Baker said. “In six years, this administration year after year has worked extremely hard to find common ground and balance when we make decisions among competing interests. I get the fact that there’s always going to be competing interests when we get into any of these issues. But that’s the way we should make policy.”

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

This week, eight state representatives — seven Republicans and one Democrat — sent Baker a letter calling for Ismay’s dismissal

In his resignation letter to Theoharides, Ismay, a former attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, apologized for his remarks to the Vermont group and suggested they were misinterpreted.

“I would like to apologize, again, for my comments at last month’s Vermont Climate Council meeting,” he wrote. “My inability to clearly communicate during that discussion reflected poorly on the Governor, on you, and on our hardworking staff. Although my comments were interpreted by some as placing the burden of climate change on hardworking families and vulnerable populations, my intent was the opposite. In the entire[t]y of my remarks, and as I have elsewhere, I was urging caution in order to minimize such impacts out of a sincere concern that overly aggressive emissions targets may have unintended and harmful consequences on those we most need to protect.”