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In the void of national climate legislation, locals lead the way

Michelle Wu joined Senator Ed Markey at a Climate Canvass kickoff in Moakley Park in October.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In Washington, D.C., it feels tenuous. In Glasgow, it’s falling short. But when it comes to climate action, not all is lost. Just look at the local level.

Increasingly, as climate agreements on the world stage have proven complicated and legislation at the national level has been elusive, advocates are looking to policy makers at the state and local level to lead the way.

Just days after Michelle Wu won the mayoral election after running on a Boston Green New Deal and climate advocates won offices elsewhere in the state, local leaders jetted off to the big United Nations conference on global warming in Glasgow to talk about how climate action is moving ahead in Massachusetts.


In panels and meetings, they’re pointing to the law mandating the state get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and a recently passed rule to decarbonize the biggest buildings in Boston, and exchanging notes with officials doing similar work at the state and provincial levels.

Massachusetts isn’t alone, but rather part of a growing wave of subnational climate action that took on particular relevance during the hostile days of the Trump administration and has continued into the Biden presidency. In Colorado, for instance, a suite of bills tackled energy waste and introduced clean heat measures. In Hawaii, Governor David Ige signed three bills this summer to increase the use of zero-emissions vehicles to help keep the state on track for its goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2045.

It’s on these smaller stages that climate polices are pushing the limit, inspiring officials in other states and putting pressure on federal actors to step up, said Jeff Mauk, executive director of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators. “They can innovate and test out things that, if it works out, well, the federal government might adopt it.”


When President Biden arrived in Glasgow last week at the beginning of the summit, the conference had already been proclaimed by some groups — perhaps prematurely — to be a failure, as the pledges by many countries appear to fall short of averting the worst of global warming.

He also arrived empty handed. The administration’s landmark climate legislation had stalled in Congress, showing that despite how progressive a national leader’s stance on climate may be, turning those words into action is another story.

By week two of the summit, the situation back home had changed somewhat with the passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that includes $47 billion in climate resilience measures, $65 billion in investments in clean energy, and billions more for electric vehicle charging. But the more significant package — the Build Back Better plan — remains elusive.

Kathleen Theoharides, Massachusetts secretary for energy and environment affairs; Senator Michael Barrett, a coauthor of the state’s net-zero climate legislation; and the Rev. Mariama White Hammond, Boston’s chief of Environment, Energy and Open Spaces, are among the officials walking the halls of the summit.

Both Barrett and Theoharides attended the 2017 climate summit in Bonn, shortly after President Donald Trump had pulled the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement.

“We were able to show the world that even in the absence of federal leadership, states were going above and beyond to actually continue to uphold the target” of the Paris agreement, Theoharides said. “And we were able to show with emissions modeling that the collective actions of states were actually still meeting the obligations under Paris.”


Four years later, the politics and the stance on climate change at the White House have undergone a sea change, but the challenges of passing binding legislation through Congress remain.

“Our current situation is different, and yet in some respects it’s the same,” said Barrett. “What we’re doing in Massachusetts becomes all the more important as the odds go longer around significant national action.”

While in Glasgow, Barrett said that in addition to speaking on a panel about pricing carbon emissions, he expected to talk with legislators from Eastern Europe, the United Kingdom, even China, Russia, and Australia, where national climate efforts have not been enough to meet the climate crisis.

At the local level, White-Hammond said she would be meeting with counterparts from cities around the country and internationally and speaking about Boston’s plans to decarbonize buildings, about extreme heat and resilience in cities, and about climate justice.

“I think as one of the more vulnerable cities in the United States, we have a responsibility to speak truth about the suffering, and to share the places in which we are making progress,” White-Hammond said. “And I hope I can do that in the midst of, above, around all the politics of whether or not national governments and international bodies are responding to the crisis on the scale that is required.”

What the Massachusetts contingent’s work in Glasgow illustrates is how climate action is not just driven by policy at any one level, said Clare Kelly, executive director of the Action Fund for the Environmental League of Massachusetts.


”We need a national plan, a state plan, and a local plan to actually meet the crisis we’re in,” she said. “The more bold some of these local plans can be and show how successful they can be, that can help show that, you know, the world’s not going to fall about. All the fears that your energy bills are going to go up or you’re going to lose jobs or whatever the argument is . . . if the local level can prove how successful some of these ideas are, you can then see them implemented at the state level and on the federal level.”

In addition to Wu’s victory, several progressive climate advocates also were elected last week, including Joshua Garcia as mayor of Holyoke, and Gina Louise-Sciarra as Northampton mayor — signs that local action is likely on the upswing in the state, and could resonate far beyond the border.

“While the federal government is the only entity that can tackle the crisis at the scope and scale that it must be tackled at, it definitely is hopeful and exciting to see local and statewide strategies to tackle this crisis,” said John Paul Mejia, a national spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a youth climate advocacy group. “Hopefully they can create much more precedent, incentive, and pressure for the federal government to move accordingly as well.”


Sabrina Shankman can be reached at sabrina.shankman@globe.com. Follow her @shankman.