Senator: Climate change prompts candidates to run

State House News ServiceAlyssa Rayman-Read of the Conservation Law Foundation, at a Long Wharf press conference last week, described climate change as a "borderless threat" that will "happen to everybody." 

BOSTON – As local climate activists turn up the heat on state lawmakers, action from outside the Bay State's borders may also increase the pressure for additional steps on energy policy.

Environmental advocates here say they'll make the case to elected officials and the public at large that the state must boost its commitment to renewable power. Meanwhile, California recently passed a suite of new clean energy laws, and government leaders from across the globe gathered there to discuss strategies for responding to climate change.

Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, was among the participants in the Global Climate Action Summit.

The Massachusetts Senate's unanimous vote earlier this year in favor of Barrett language establishing a carbon pricing system – a measure that didn't ultimately become law – made it the first legislative body in the country to authorize a carbon fee, Barrett's office said.

'Middle of the pack'

At the San Francisco summit, however, Barrett said he found Massachusetts landed "in the middle of the pack."

"We're not lagging behind, but we really have nothing to brag about," Barrett said in a phone interview from California. "In fact, our great problem is that we are too self-congratulatory around the single issue of energy efficiency. DoIng well in terms of one method doesn't bring us where we need to be. The conversation here is all about addressing emissions from the transportation sector, where Massachusetts' current role is an embarrassment."

He said he found the trip "motivating" but "being here also freaks you out a little bit."

"This is a scary issue," he said. "People at the very highest levels, nonprofit grassroots organizations but also governments are really, really worried. We're reaching, soon, a point where the scientists say we're not going to be able to reclaim lost ground."

On Aug. 9, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new clean energy law that authorizes an additional procurement of offshore wind power, increases the renewable portfolio standard that governs the amount of clean energy utilities must purchase, establishes an energy storage target, and requires gas companies to collect and report data on leaks, among other measures.

The law comes on the heels of 2016 legislation that pushed the state to forge ahead with major wind and hydropower procurements.

Clean energy advocates say they're ready for more.

At a recent press conference along Boston Harbor, Environment Massachusetts organizer Sunday Swett said the next move should be setting the state on a path to get all its power from renewable sources.

"The bad news is that the challenges we face are enormous, but the good news is that we have the solutions to meaningfully reduce carbon pollution," she said. "The question is whether we can summon the political will to implement those solutions."

Swett said Massachusetts "can and must do better," noting that this year's law did not remove the cap on solar net metering.

'Horde of new candidates'

Barrett said he sees a "radicalization" around climate issues happening in Massachusetts, which could ultimately have electoral consequences.

"Voters in 2020 are going to be furious, furiously involved because of President Trump, but falling right behind that, you're going to see a new radicalism emerge around climate change issues," he said. "I think the combination is going to bring forth a wave of challenges to all of us in the Democratic primaries. I don't feel that I'm exempt, either. I think we're going to be contending with a horde of new candidates, very appealing ones, especially women, and we better have our answers ready on climate. There will be no place to hide in the Democratic primaries."

Energy and environmental issues came into play in the Sept. 4 primary where Jamaica Plain Democrat Nika Elugardo unseated House Ways and Means Chairman Jeffrey Sanchez.

About a month before the primary, a trio of climate organizations – 350 Mass Action, the Massachusetts Sierra Club, and Sunrise Movement – held a press conference to endorse Elugardo and "vow political action against the status quo." The groups said Elugardo was the right person to help move Massachusetts toward 100 percent renewable energy, and that Sanchez had "repeatedly stood against the interests of the people and instead, sided with the interests of utility and energy companies."

After the election, Craig Altemose of 350 Mass Action penned an op-ed in Commonwealth Magazine, writing that "furious" climate groups contributed to Elugardo's "monumental victory."

"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," Altemose wrote.

Can't be denied

Swett, of Environment Massachusetts, said at last week's press conference that the impact of climate change can no longer be ignored.

"With sea levels rising, with extreme heat changes and currently just the hurricane coming into North Carolina for this weekend, I think it's very clear that there is an urgency, and it's a matter of not only seeing it but being able to convince our state leaders, our state legislators, that this is an urgent need," she said. "We need to work at a local level to push our leaders and our state officials to be a part of that change."

Speaking at the same event, Alyssa Rayman-Read of the Conservation Law Foundation said the conversation around climate change must shift.

"Sure, there's an inside game for talking to elected officials who are paid to listen and to think about these issues and to pass legislation that they believe in or oppose legislation that they don't believe in," Rayman-Read said.

But, she said, having people understand the personal impacts of climate change on their homes, families and businesses, as well as the potential economic opportunities in building up a clean energy industry, can create a public sentiment "that actually then puts pressure on elected officials to make changes."

"This is going to happen to everybody, so even if you live in a beautiful house that's not in an area that has poor infrastructure, you're still going to feel it, and making that clear and then having that be a bonding and unifying theme, I think, is another piece of making that messaging more compelling for people."

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