Painting Boston shades of green

The direction of Boston’s climate change plan in the post-Menino era

The next mayor of Boston will face many challenges, but few will be as long-term and as far-reaching as climate change. A peculiar result of the broken political system in Washington is that climate change – a decidedly global issue – has become a sweet spot for state and city policymakers. Just as the most significant international report since 2007 on the scientific basis of climate change was being released, a practical – and bipartisan – energy efficiency bill was predictably unraveling on Capitol Hill. So while meaningful legislative action on a national scale remains elusive, mayors across the country will continue to play a major role on climate and energy policy.

For a city like Boston, that means a golden opportunity to continue paving the way. Boston is already recognized as a national leader in efficiency and renewable energy. It lies at the nexus of the first market-based emissions reduction program in the United States – the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). Its geography makes it uniquely susceptible to flooding and extreme weather events. And for the city’s next mayor, all of those facts mean that a major decision looms when Tom Menino steps down in January. Will the winner of Tuesday’s election continue in his predecessor’s footsteps, prioritizing clean energy, efficiency, and infrastructure resilience? Or will climate change be an afterthought in the new mayor’s City Hall? The implications of that decision will be felt far beyond the city limits.

No mayor in America has done more to make climate and energy policy a priority than Michael Bloomberg, who this summer unveiled a $20 billion adaptation plan for New York City to cement climate change as a cornerstone of his legacy. But Menino is not far behind. In 2000, Boston joined the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign as part of an international network of local governments committed to sustainable development. In 2007, the city’s original Climate Action Plan was released and Menino, by executive order, outlined policies to be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from municipal operations. In 2009, he created the Climate Action Leadership Committee and the Community Advisory Committee. A year later, those committees presented a set of recommendations which would serve as the foundation for Boston’s updated comprehensive climate action plan, A Climate of Progress. The plan, which is to be updated every three years, includes aggressive greenhouse gas reduction targets – 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050 – as part of a sweeping effort addressing efficiency, transportation, buildings, and waste reduction while developing the workforce skills to reap the economic benefits of climate action. Last week, Menino announced that the plan’s next iteration, due for release in 2014, will focus heavily on preparedness, resilience, and community engagement.

The two men vying to succeed Menino will inherit a truly impressive record on climate policy when the dust settles after what a recent WBUR/MassINC Polling Group poll called “essentially a toss-up.” In a race that has seen very little disagreement on broad policy positions, climate change is no exception. So attempting to forecast where climate change truly falls on each candidate’s list of priorities becomes an important exercise.

After months of platitudes served up to the environmental community that lasted through September’s preliminary election, Marty Walsh recently unveiled a comprehensive energy, environment, and sustainability plan. To his credit, his list of objectives is indeed comprehensive, but climate and energy policy is uncharted territory for Walsh. As recently as June, during a forum co-hosted by CommonWealth, Walsh missed the mark in his response to a question about Boston’s climate action plan, meandering through peripheral environmental issues after describing, in broad strokes, the importance of adaptation and efficiency. His talking points have since been polished and his comprehensive plan is a promising step in the right direction, but it is fair to question just how much time and political capital would be spent on a set of policy objectives by a mayor with little tangible experience – and ostensibly little interest – in the subject.

John Connolly’s plan has been in place much longer. He has touted his role on Menino’s Climate Action Leadership Committee and – in the first of the five goals his plan outlines – reaffirmed his commitment to meeting the city’s 2020 and 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets. Connolly has also articulated the urgency to adapt to the threats posed by rising sea levels and increasing natural disaster frequency. His plan includes a proposal to convene a panel of climate scientists and civil engineers to mimic Bloomberg’s adaptation plan, and he has consistently pointed to the opportunities for job creation that would result from the development of clean energy and more sustainable and resilient infrastructure.

Still, Connolly is poised to make education the clear centerpiece of his mayoral agenda. Walsh, whose legislative career has been built on his strong ties to labor, may be better politically positioned to immediately begin investing in the sorts of ambitious infrastructure projects that the city needs to adapt to climate change.

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After all, in the short-term emergency preparedness must be the priority. Boston is ill-equipped to withstand the impact of the next major natural disaster and it is only a matter of time before that threat becomes a reality. Both candidates clearly recognize that fact. But the long-term focus of the next mayor is equally important. There is far more urgency to act on climate change today than there was when Tom Menino first stepped foot in City Hall twenty years ago, and there will almost certainly be far more urgency than there is today by the time the mayor of Boston is someone not named either Marty Walsh or John Connolly. The next mayor will be responsible for not just preparing and responding to localized impacts, but also for charting the course of a city at the national forefront of the climate change challenge. In the post-Menino era, Boston will remain one of the most climate-conscious cities in the country. But the shade of green that will coat the walls inside the next mayor’s City Hall remains to be seen.

John Prandato is the Manager of Online Communications and Outreach for MassINC, the think tank that publishes CommonWealth.