Climate change politics is heating up

Environmentalists call for civil disobedience, decry half-hearted responses

The tenor of the debate about climate change, like the problem itself, is changing. As the planet warms at what appears to be a faster and faster rate, environmental advocates are becoming more vocal and more pointed.

The changing dynamic was on full display at a gubernatorial forum last week hosted by many of the state’s environmental groups. Gov. Charlie Baker has taken a lot of positive steps to reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels, including signing legislation to launch an offshore wind industry and import more hydro-electricity from Canada.

But the governor’s refusal to say he won’t support the construction of another gas pipeline into the region put him at odds with the environmental groups and gave an opening to his Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez, who wholeheartedly embraced their agenda. Gonzalez admitted he wasn’t sure how to leave natural gas behind and move to an all-renewable future in 30 years, but he said the state should be able to figure it out.

“I will not deal with the short-term pressures we face by pursuing a long-term solution that’s a long-term problem,” he said, referring to building more natural gas pipeline capacity.

Environmentalists have seized on the natural gas explosions and fires in the Merrimack Valley, which appear to have been caused by human error, to bolster their case against natural gas.

“The explosions in the Merrimack Valley are just the latest example of the disasters that can result from our dependence on this hazardous fossil fuel,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

Environmental activist Bill McKibben is calling for civil disobedience nationally. “Politics as usual seems not to be working to address the climate emergency, save for a few outliers like California or Norway. And a few outliers is not enough,” he said in a recent newspaper column.

Locally, McKibben’s acolytes are talking tougher and tougher. Craig Altemose claims environmental advocates played a key role in ousting House Ways and Means Chair Jeffrey Sanchez in the Democratic primary for failing to push for more aggressive climate change legislation.

“The climate movement in particular and the progressive movement in general will not long suffer fair weather friends or faux leaders,” Altemose said in an op-ed. “California is on fire. Hawaii was just hit with one hurricane while Puerto Rico is still struggling a year later to recover from another. The arctic is melting. And Massachusetts has been experiencing intense heat after witnessing multiple hundred-year floods in 2018. Half-hearted responses will be met with whole-hearted opposition in favor of politicians who understand the crisis we face and stand ready to offer the leadership we need.”

Vignesh Ramachandran, one of Altemose’s colleagues here in Massachusetts, suggested Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo are not all that different from President Trump when it comes to the environment. “Their Trump-lite policies are incommensurate to the scale and urgency of the crisis,” he said. “They ensure the bottom line of the utilities and corporations polluting our planet remain unharmed. Their reasonable and respectable rhetoric on climate change is just a publically appeasing form of Trumpian dogma.”

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.

Not all members of the environmental movement are speaking out so forcefully, but the tone of the debate is clearly changing.

BRUCE MOHL