Lessons learned from the push for climate action

Activists need their own roadmap for Beacon Hill

ON WHAT WOULD HAVE BEEN the last day of the 2019-2020 legislative session, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a Roadmap Bill, helping to lay the foundation for a slightly more ambitious – and much better planned – decarbonization of the economy. Crucially, the final bill also included an amendment around environmental justice, which would codify into law protections for low-income communities and communities of color which face disproportionate burdens of pollution due to decades of environmental racism and the systematic undervaluing of black, indigenous, immigrant, and poor lives.

Both the roadmap bill in general and the environmental justice component specifically deserve our praise and gratitude, particularly when the House could have used the guise of the pandemic to swear off climate action. Following the Senate’s “Next Generation” climate bill passed earlier this year, it is clear that both House and Senate leadership have over the course of this session tried to answer the question of how to respond to climate change with an authentic, thoughtful response.

Yet the lofty goals of the Legislature and the governor, including a now-universal commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, do not line up with reality. First, net-zero emissions by 2050 is tragically too late to hold the risk of ruinous climate change at an acceptably low level. Equally important, neither the House, nor the Senate, nor the governor have yet to commit to advance the specific tools we need to achieve their targets.

Of course, this is part of, if not the driving impulse, of the Roadmap Bill – to require the executive branch to set out a clear plan with specific interim targets to guide our progress toward the goal – which is why it should be enacted. And yet the path ahead is not so opaque. There is universal agreement that the pathway to decarbonize the economy involves a) cleaning up the electricity grid and b) electrifying the heating and transportation sectors so they are powered by this renewable, clean electricity, while c) advancing energy efficiency through better technology and intentional conservation. And, crucially, there is growing agreement that how we do this is just as important as how fast we do it, namely that we must make advancing racial justice and the growth and equitable distribution of good union jobs core to the work of decarbonization. How fast we go, which order we go in, and how we center racial and economic justice are pieces that the roadmap should seek to answer.

But with climate change barreling toward us, we need not wait to have the full plan to start advancing a just transition beyond fossil fuels. The Legislature seems a bit too content to push off the hard decisions on to the governor and into the future. And the governor, who continues to advance the construction of projects like the Weymouth Compressor Station – despite the fact that it takes us in the wrong direction and has been ruled illegal by the courts – has not yet shown that he can be trusted with this responsibility.

The House bill made some small progress toward the first path – electrifying the electricity grid – with an amendment that would accelerate the amount of renewable electricity utilities have to produce from the current law of 35 percent by 2030 to a new goal of 40 percent by 2030. In contrast, our neighbor to the south, Rhode Island, is actively working to get 100 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030.

But the House and Senate jointly failed this session to consider a bill co-sponsored by the majority of the Legislature that would achieve 100 percent clean and renewable electricity by 2035 and 100 percent renewable energy (inclusive of electricity, heating, and transportation) by 2045. This points to a consistent pattern that frustrates advocates, climate and otherwise. We do the hard work of persuading a majority of legislators that a particular piece of legislation is both important and beneficial, only to see that same piece of legislation quietly killed through legislative inaction.

For the climate movement, this suggests that we need our own “roadmap” and pursue several pathways simultaneously.

First, we must continue building stronger coalition alliances. Specifically, that means advancing stronger and tighter alignment with other key sectors of the progressive movement that have a shared stake in a livable future, including the movements for racial justice, indigenous sovereignty, economic justice and labor rights, and immigrant justice. Such alliances will not just allow us to be more morally grounded in the work and better at designing effective policies, but will also allow us to achieve the type of broad-based and deep consensus we need to win real, lasting policy change.

Second, we must strengthen our political power. The climate movement is increasingly finding itself to be a potent political force. Here in Massachusetts, we have seen climate advocates win races at the local and state levels, and are likely about to see the historic first defeat of a Kennedy in Massachusetts, as the climate movement propels Green New Deal author and champion Ed Markey to victory. We have made tremendous progress but must continue in earnest defeating those who stand in the way of progress on climate, racial, and economic justice.

Finally, we must be willing to challenge broken systems. It is simply unacceptable for bills sponsored by a majority of legislators to never come up for a vote. If more than half of legislators are confident enough to put their name on a bill, that bill should be evaluated and released by the relevant committee and brought to a full vote of each house. Period.

The next several months present several opportunities for us to continue in each of these veins. Active dialogue, trust-building, and solidarity are helping to bring together environmental justice, labor, and climate advocates and must continue with great intention and care. In the September 1 primary, voters will have the chance to send a clear message to legislators by electing Green New Deal champions – and No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge signers – like Chelsea’s Damili Vidot and Allston-Brighton’s Jordan Meehan over entrenched incumbents Dan Ryan and Kevin Honan, while re-electing Sen. Ed Markey over a Kennedy scion.

This November, voters in 20 House districts will be able to vote on ballot initiative questions around renewable energy and State House transparency, sending a clear message of public support for climate action and better, more democratic, and transparent governance. And in January, when the House next votes on the rules that will govern it for the next 18 months, we will need to ask those who claim to support climate justice to support the types of internal House rules that make achieving ambitious and equitable climate progress possible.

Meet the Author

Craig S Altemose

Senior advisor, 350 Massachusetts for a Better Future
The path before us will not be an easy one, but what we need to do is thankfully coming into clarity. We need only the courage and confidence in our convictions to walk it.

Craig S. Altemose is executive director of 350 Mass Action.