An overdue cost-benefit analysis

when gov. deval Patrick signed sweeping energy legislation into law two years ago, the headline in the Boston Globe the next day was: “State starts a green era.”

The story was strikingly positive, reflecting none of the uncertainty that has come to characterize energy policy in the United States. It simply laid out what the Green Communities Act would do. There was no discussion of alternative approaches; indeed, there were no negative comments at all. “Climate change is the challenge of our times, and we in Massachusetts are rising to that challenge,” Patrick said.

In this special issue of CommonWealth, we try to assess how successful we’ve been. Our coverage focuses on what the state is doing to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and curb greenhouse gases, how much these efforts will cost, and how those costs are largely hidden from public view. We also investigate whether going green will be the economic development and jobs bonanza Patrick has pro­mised. Other stories in the issue examine how the environmental movement is splintering in this age of climate change and why Boston takes such a hands-off approach to recycling—especially when compared to one west coast city with similar demographics.

 We don’t spend any time debating climate change. We assume it is real and citizens of the world need to do something about it. What they should do, and how fast they should do it, is open for debate.

The terms of that debate can change fairly quickly. Nationally, the BP oil disaster  in the Gulf of Mexico is having an impact on climate change discussions in Washing­ton. Here in Massachusetts, the talk is more about the price of fossil fuels. When the Green Communities Act was signed into law in July 2008, oil and natural gas prices were at all-time peaks and renewable power seemed very attractive. Today, oil and gas prices have fallen back to roughly half of what they were two years ago, and renewable power seems costly by comparison.

There are also strategic issues to consider. Should Massa­chusetts, with its strong environmental record, be leading the way to a green future even if it puts businesses here at a competitive disadvantage, at least initially?

As I struggled with these issues, I read two books that approach climate change from very different angles. In Our Choice, former vice president and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore says the tools exist to solve the climate crisis. He doesn’t dwell on what these tools will cost and instead says what’s needed is collective will.

“We can solve the climate crisis,” Gore writes. “It will be hard, to be sure, but if we choose to solve it, I have no doubt whatsoever that we can and will succeed.”

Robert Bryce, the author of Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, dismisses Gore’s “happy talk” about wind, solar, and other renewables becoming major power sources in the near future. He says these renewables yield too little power at too high a cost in terms of dollars and real estate. He recommends using natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels, as a bridge to a future filled with nuclear power.

“People in the United States and around the world are hungry for power,” Bryce writes. “They want it for their cars, motorcycles, and lawnmowers, and they want it for their flat-screen TVs, mobile phones, computers, and Cuisinarts. They want power because power drives those devices and in doing so creates wealth and increases personal happiness.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Gore and Bryce represent very different approaches to climate change and very different views of the world. Gore’s world view is driving much of what we are doing now in Massachusetts, but Bryce’s philosophy is also reflected in that the state has dramatically shifted away from oil and embraced natural gas in the production of electricity. The green era has begun in Massachusetts. It’s time now to discuss what, exactly, that means.

Bruce Mohl