Vote for climate and democracy

44 communities can pressure their lawmakers

CLIMATE AND DEMOCRACY are on the ballot this fall for hundreds of thousands of voters across the Commonwealth. Voters in all or part of 44 communities (a complete list is at the bottom of this column) will have a chance to signal an instruction to their state representative to vote for 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 and for all committee votes to be publicly available on state websites.

This initiative was jointly spearheaded by 350 Massachusetts, one of the state’s leading climate justice organizations, and Act on Mass, a new organization focused on transparency in Massachusetts state government, co-founded by incoming Rep. Erica Uyterhoeven. We would have had even more communities voting on these questions if not for the pandemic, and expect to repeat this process in additional districts if our goals are not achieved this session.

Why did we feel the need to run these ballot questions? Put simply, our Legislature is not responding to the climate crisis with the appropriate speed, scale, and compassion required. We all know the stakes – when we look at the record-setting devastation on our West Coast from wildfires, or the fact that we have already run out of letters of the alphabet for our hurricanes in 2020, it does not take a PhD in climate science to appreciate the world’s climate is already in bad shape. Add on top of that the dangerous stratification of our oceans, the irreversible melting of Greenland, birds falling dead from the sky, and the fact that global wildlife populations have declined almost 70 percent over the past 50 years, it is just common sense that we cannot afford to continue polluting for decades and expect to pass along a remotely livable planet to today’s youth, much less future generations.

While our neighbors in Rhode Island are moving ahead with 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, and polls show 75 percent of Americans support 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035, Massachusetts’ current renewable energy standards will not see us reach that level until 2095 (which will move forward to 2090 if the current House bill waiting in legislative limbo is passed in to law).

And the frustrating part is that most Massachusetts state legislators publicly agree with us. After a robust push by the grassroots Mass Power Forward Coalition, over 100 state legislators – a majority of both houses of the Legislature, signed on to co-sponsor the 100 percent Renewable Energy Act introduced by state Reps. Marjorie Decker of Cambridge and Sean Garballey of Arlington and Sen.Jamie Eldridge of Acton.

And yet we managed to get through the traditional session, from January 2019 through July 2020, without that bill coming to the floor for a vote–and all signs pointing to it not being taken up during the extended session. Over the past several weeks, 350 Mass activists have conducted standouts alongside heavily-trafficked motorways across the state to call attention to the dire need to pass climate legislation. It is simply unconscionable for a bill with majority support dealing with one of the greatest crises facing human civilization to quietly die in committee, without so much as a public committee vote for the people to hold their legislators accountable to.

Sadly, a lack of climate action is a clear signal of the need for reform of our Legislature’s processes, it is not the only one. Our Legislature has failed to pass critical legislation to address criminal justice reforms, immigration, housing, and the evictions crisis, and a long list of other issues where despite the prevalence of popular support, bills die quietly without transparent votes to hold elected officials accountable to.

While non-binding referenda are not a silver bullet, these ballot questions give voters the opportunity to put their thumbs on the scale in favor of climate action and better transparency in government. And crucially, if the elected officials ignore the directive of their constituents, we will have better means to hold these officials accountable the next time they are at the ballot box. Vote yes for climate action. Vote yes for government transparency.

The communities with the non-binding referendum questions include Amherst, Arlington, Ashfield, Auburndale, Bedford, Belmont, Brookline, Boston, Buckland, Burlington, Cambridge, Chester, Chesterfield, Conway, Dedham, Deerfield, Easthampton, Essex, Gloucester, Goshen, Granby, Huntington, Leverett, Lowell, Middlefield, Montage, Newton, Pelham, Plainfield, Revere, Rockport, Shelburne, Shutesburg, Somerville, South Hadley, Sunderland, Waban, Walpole, Westwood, Whately, Williamsburg, Wilmington, Winthrop, and Worthington.

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