The many faces of climate denial

Mass. leaders are soft-pedaling a dire problem

North Carolinians are paying a price for the politicization of climate science. In 2012, the North Carolina state legislature attempted to outlaw sea level rise by preventing the use of sea level rise data in any government planning efforts (after a 2010 study predicted a rise of three feet this century). The cost in terms of property damage and human suffering that could have been prevented without this order is hard to measure. But if there is one thing Hurricane Florence demonstrated, it is that we cannot ignore or wish away climate change for short-term political convenience.

Which brings us to Massachusetts. While North Carolina’s state legislature demonstrated the most egregious and obvious form of climate denial — a wholesale denial of the problem — Massachusetts’s state government, under the leadership of Gov. Charlie Baker, has recently adopted a different form of climate denial that is arguably just as pernicious and even more widespread: denying that the problem is as serious as it is.

Earlier this month after facing unprecedented levels of forest fires, California’s state legislature passed a law that would get California to 100 percent clean, fossil-fuel-free energy by 2045 (that means not burning the coal, oil, or gas that is the largest drive of climate change). In June, the Massachusetts State Senate demonstrated a similarly grounded understanding of the problem (without needing half of the state to be on fire to motivate them) by unanimously passing a comprehensive bipartisan energy bill that would (among other things) accomplish a similar goal in Massachusetts by 2048.

Yet our House of Representatives (under the leadership of Speaker Robert DeLeo and Way & Means chairman Jeffrey Sanchez) and governor have balked in the face of the Senate’s leadership, and with their collective power ensured that we only passed a watered-down law that would reach 100 percent renewable energy decades later. Suggesting we can afford to wait over 50 years to solve a problem that has already killed people by the thousands in Puerto Rico, burned down countless towns in California, left the Carolinas in shreds, and increased flooding and heat waves in Massachusetts is merely a more politically acceptable form of climate denial.

The sad truth is that the legislator responsible for North Carolina’s science-denying law (state Rep. Pat McElraft) saw her own coastal hometown get ravaged by the might of a climate-powered super-storm. We’ll see how forgiving her neighbors are at her next election, and how many super-storms she will need to subject her community to before changing her perspective.

Meanwhile, Gov. Baker and Speaker DeLeo hail from coastal communities of their own (Swampscott and Winthrop, respectively). And while Gov. Baker in particular deserves some credit for state programs designed to help communities begin the long road to preparing for climate impacts, he is simultaneously supporting the push for more climate-wrecking natural gas pipelines in the state (at ratepayers’ expense), and is lukewarm in his support of renewable energy.

Hopefully, Swampscott, Winthrop, and other coastal communities will not need to experience similar levels of tragedy before Baker and DeLeo realize the error of their ways and finally get real about addressing the climate crisis.

In the September Democratic primary, voters in his district ousted Sanchez, who played a key role in further weakening the House bill, and elected in his place Nika Elugardo, a candidate who has pledged her support for a more rapid and just transition to 100 percent renewable energy.

The electorate is waking up to the dangers of climate change and this softer form of climate denial. Let’s hope our elected officials do the same.

Meet the Author

Craig S Altemose

Senior advisor, 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future
Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of Better Future Project and 350 Mass Action.