Baker’s net-zero goal is business-as-usual

It’s not climate leadership, or even followership

ON TUESDAY, two notable public figures gave public addresses on the topic of climate change, illuminating the bridge that exists between what society needs to do to tackle climate change, and what society is so far willing to do to tackle climate change.

In his State of the State address, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker laid out a number of ways he seeks to increase the ambition of our state’s efforts to address climate change: embracing the target of net-zero emissions by 2050, increasing funding for the state’s under-funded public transportation system, calling for the execution of his plan to fund needed climate resilience efforts, and pushing his support for a now beleaguered regional transportation carbon pricing system.

Meanwhile, a continent away, `16-year-old climate activist and movement leader Greta Thunberg was taking political and corporate leaders to task at the Davos World Economic Forum, explicitly calling out how “distant net zero emission targets will mean absolutely nothing” if we do not take meaningful action now and today. Among other things, she called for an immediate end to fossil fuel subsidies, of financing of fossil fuel extraction, and for divestment. And above all else, the immediate implementation of policies consistent with the Paris Climate Agreement’s goals of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

These two well-meaning addresses highlight the tensions society is feeling around this critical issue. Baker represents the “business-as-usual approach,” the notion that we can afford to gradually address this problem without making major and immediate shifts in society, while Thunberg represents the “science-first approach” that looks at physics and chemistry and the quantities of climate pollution that scientists say we should avoid emitting at all costs, and works backward from that to see how society should reshape itself to avoid collapse.

One of these is based on wishful thinking. The other represents true pragmatism.

Baker is proposing a slightly more ambitious goal 30 years from now that future governors will largely be responsible for meeting. He advances moderate tweaks to our transportation system: a bit more funding to keep the MBTA going, but not enough to actually get large numbers of additional riders on the T. He is pushing for a mild increase in the cost of gasoline (which tries to hide the fact that it is a mild increase) to create a relatively modest amount of revenue to spend to gradually decarbonize the transportation system. And he calls for a relatively modest increase in the tax of real estate sales to create a relatively modest fund to help communities prepare for the ravages of climate change

All of these proposals are normatively good things in their own right, but they are neither courageous nor creative. They are the types of things environmentalists have literally been calling for for decades. And in the meantime, decades of time have been squandered. That is not Baker’s fault, but it is his responsibility as the man we chose to lead us in this critical time.

As Thunberg laid out in her recent address to the United Nations, the science Baker is citing as moving him toward the net zero by 2050 goal (which absolutely necessitates a 50 percent reduction in climate pollution by 2030 for it to be relevant), only gives humanity a 50 percent chance of avoiding a 1.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperature, something scientists say exceeding would be catastrophic for society and the natural world we rely upon.

As she says: “Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50 percent risk is simply not acceptable to us — we who have to live with the consequences.”

At current rates of pollution, society will blow past a two-thirds chance of avoiding a 1.5 Celsius rise before the decade is out. No one in their right mind would let their children board a plane with only a two-thirds chance of landing safely. Yet we’re prepared to say that all the world’s children should board a plane with only a 50 percent chance of safe arrival. That’s either mad, heartless, or ignorant. But it sure as heck is not courage or leadership.

Should Massachusetts move forward with the governor’s call to action? Absolutely, because we need to move forward everything we can.

Is it fair to call it climate leadership? No, indeed, it’s hard to argue that it’s even climate followership.

Climate followership would include following the clear guidelines of even an inadequate 50 percent chance of avoiding catastrophe, which requires a 50 percent reduction by 2030, the more important and more enforceable target than net zero by 2050.

Climate followership would look at the recent example of our neighbor to the south, where Gina Raimondo, the governor of Rhode Island, just recently signed an executive order calling for her state to get 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Massachusetts’ current laws will have us achieve the same by 2095, and Baker has not made any moves to advance our timeline, even as his net-zero goal would require us to have no pollution by 2050.

Climate followership would not include permitting the Weymouth compressor station and countless other fossil fuel infrastructure projects that are completely at odds with the state’s long-term climate goals, even before Baker increased their ambition.

Climate leadership would include an immediate moratorium on any new fossil fuel infrastructure permitting or construction. It would include massive new funding of public transportation, making all public transit (or at least buses) free for riders, and a clear and bold new goal around 100 percent renewable energy. And it would include centering equity and justice alongside reducing pollution to ensure that the transition to clean energy is a just and equitable one (e.g. increasing affordable housing as a form of climate resilience and climate mitigation).

If Baker wants to be seen as a climate leader, which he should, he needs to drastically increase the aims of his ambitions.

As Thunberg ended her plea to world leaders: “Our house is still on fire. Your inaction is fueling the flames by the hour. And we are telling you to act as if you loved your children above all else.”

Meet the Author

Craig S Altemose

Senior advisor, 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future
One can only hope that the governor, and the Massachusetts Legislature, are listening.

Craig S. Altemose is the executive director of Better Future Project, the home of 350 Massachusetts, Divest Ed, and Communities Responding to Extreme Weather (CREW).