It was a year of head-spinning climate news: Massachusetts endured extreme weather, in the form of a scorching June and a sopping July. Lawmakers signed landmark climate legislation that commits the state to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and the state accelerated its development of offshore wind. As the year drew to a close, though, key pieces of the plan to kick fossil fuels and make the grid more green sputtered and died, raising questions about whether the state’s goals really are within reach.
We asked four experts about the year that was, and what to look forward to in 2022.
Senator Michael Barrett is the lead author of the state’s climate plan; Elizabeth Turnbull Henry is the president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts; Gaurab Basu is a physician and codirector of the Center for Health Equity Education & Advocacy; and Samantha Montaño is the director of organizing for the Chelsea-based grass-roots group GreenRoots.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
What is Massachusetts’ biggest accomplishment in the fight against climate change in 2021?
Barrett: Broadly speaking, passage of the climate act was the coup of the year. More specifically, the act has already given an entirely new look — and new marching orders — to Mass Save, the state’s principal tool for greening our buildings.
Turnbull Henry: Probably the biggest would be the signing of the Roadmap bill in March, setting a net-zero mandate and interim targets [for carbon emission cuts] and codifying environmental justice language for the first time. Probably second would be the election of Michelle Wu because it was voters energized by her vision for climate that got her elected.
Basu: I think we’re poised to be a major leader in offshore wind, and our Roadmap bill shows leadership on the state level. And after a lot of advocacy by nonprofits, I’m encouraged statutory requirements are now part of state law that allow us to halve our emissions by 2030. I believe in this time of uncertainty on the federal level, it’s critical that states lead.
Montaño: The Roadmap legislation that was passed, and specifically, in that legislation, codifying environmental justice. That is huge for Massachusetts, for anybody who is part of a marginalized community or oppressed community — if you’re low-income, if English is not your primary language, folks of color. It also includes public participation, so you have to put proposals through a community process.
What was the state’s biggest missed opportunity on climate this year?
Barrett: I won’t easily forget the action of Maine voters in obstructing the transmission of hydro-based electric power down to Massachusetts. We shouldn’t be quick to forget their callousness.
Turnbull Henry: Governor Baker’s hand was forced to suspend Mass. participation in the Transportation and Climate Initiative, and TCI was one in a portfolio of transportation decarbonization strategies. Losing TCI complicates the road ahead for decarbonizing that sector.
Basu: With transportation being the number one source of emissions in Massachusetts and around the world, the demise of TCI was a setback. I’m looking for leadership in the state to present the pathway forward that will decrease air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions for my patients.
Montaño: We haven’t invested as deeply as we could in opportunities to tie climate change to justice. For example, we’re cutting MBTA routes and we’re not investing in the train, even though that could be a way to reduce pollution. That could be helpful for the climate. But it could also be helpful to people experiencing asthma from car exhaust.
Governor Baker has said he’s not going to run for reelection. What is his legacy on climate change?
Barrett: To their everlasting credit, he and his people elevated the issue and accomplished a lot within Massachusetts. True, with the Transportation and Climate Initiative, and again with the trans-Maine hydropower project, they placed big bets on regional cooperation, and the region let them down. But both were worth a try.
Turnbull Henry: One of my most lasting memories of Governor Baker, of his leadership, will be the picture in my mind I have of him testifying in Washington, a Republican leader on climate change. Climate is a deeply polarizing issue for some reason, and I think he was a really valuable bridge into the Republican Party on this issue.
Basu: Governor Baker and his administration has made clear that climate change has been a priority for the state, and his ability to work with the State House for the Roadmap bill will be a lasting legacy for him.
Montaño: The Roadmap legislation was obviously a huge win for him and for our state. But still, climate change is moving way faster than we are, and he failed to make some systemic changes we need. Take the Housing and Environment Revenue Opportunities (HERO) legislation, which is in the State House right now. It shows we could provide money for climate and housing. He could have made that a bigger priority. All in all, a strong legacy, but he could have been so much stronger.
What is the most important thing to watch in Massachusetts on the climate front in the coming year?
Barrett: The most important thing to watch is the ground game. The heart of the matter is the shift from high-level goal-setting to ground-level execution. Time to electrify our cars, trucks, and buses; electrify our homes and businesses; and green the grid.
Turnbull Henry: There’s a double-header. A lot of federal resources are coming our way and the thing to watch will be to ensure we invest those resources with climate as a core metric. Then, second, Speaker [Ronald] Mariano has put out his vision for making offshore wind part of his legacy. I embrace that, and I also hope policy makers can make it more than just an offshore wind bill, but really a holistic climate bill.
Basu: I’m looking for health care professionals to have an increased space in the public forum to articulate the ways in which climate change and air pollution impact our patients.
Montaño: We know that all of the candidates for governor are putting out climate plans. They could really lay some important ground. We should watch to see what they want to do, how they make it relevant to communities, and how they actually plan to get things done. This legislative session we also have the opportunity to pass the HERO bill for affordable housing and climate policy. I’ll be watching for that.
What’s the one thing you’d recommend that climate-concerned people in Massachusetts do in 2022?
Barrett: I look forward to seeing the private sector satisfy green consumers. On clean transportation and clean heat, I expect companies to go all-in on product choice and realistic price points. For the first time ever, I anticipate advertising budgets big enough to reach and educate households on planet-friendly options. State government should sweeten the deal with bigger incentives. With good green values on offer, I want us climate-conscious types to reinforce our convictions with our wallets, and buy.
Turnbull Henry: People are always asking, should I fly less, or eat less meat? Well, yes. But we’re not going to get where we need to go with just the sum of individual actions. The way that we meet our goals is by electing policy makers with the vision to lead and the skills to implement. The biggest thing you can do is educate yourself on where these candidates stand, push them to be specific, and then vote for them.
Basu: Find community. We’re at this unique time of great despair and worry, and at a time in which solutions that didn’t seem possible before are more possible to implement than ever. We have everything we need to turn course and mitigate the effects of climate change, which is the greatest public health challenge and health equity challenge we’ve ever faced. Find community, and know that every one of us is well positioned to make impact in our local communities.
Montaño: It’s kind of like racism, right? You can work on yourself and understand your internal biases, but that’s not going to change the systemic issues. Similarly with climate change, you can change your light bulbs, you can compost, you can choose to have an electric vehicle if you can, but that’s not going to change the systemic issues. So I’d encourage folks to look beyond themselves. Be involved, check in with your community. See what people care about. See what organizing is happening. Get involved. Or do your own organizing if you need to. Then you’re able to take those concerns to the municipal level, to cities, towns.
What’s one word you would use to describe your feelings about the climate crisis as we head into 2022?
Barrett: Determined. Because, regardless of whether help from the feds meets the moment or falls short, state and local governments and climate-concerned citizens will stay the course and get emissions down.
Turnbull Henry: Preventable. If you think about it, over 80 percent of the drivers of anthropogenic climate change are the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels. I’m struck by how the climate crisis feels like this multi-headed hydra, and it is, but the body of the hydra is fossil fuels. That is the enemy. I’m excited that people seem to be waking up to the connection between fossil fuel production and combustion and climate change, even just normal people looking askance at their natural gas stove and saying, “Wait a minute.” The future doesn’t have to be horrible.
Basu: Courage. This feels scary and overwhelming. But we’re in it together, and it’s important that we know that the climate movement has never been more diverse, equitable, or powerful. In the face of daunting odds, it’s important for us to know our strength and power, to declare our values, and to fight for climate action which will engage us to have a healthy, just, and sustainable future.
Montaño: Honestly? Terrified. Our climate is changing so rapidly around us and we’re just not moving fast enough. Another word I’d use is “urgent.” It’s especially urgent for communities that just don’t have a lot of wealth who are already getting devastated.
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