NEW YORK — It was a star-studded gathering of the (mostly) liberal climate elite. Former president Bill Clinton, the prime minister of Barbados, and president of Ecuador were there. The speaker list included executives from General Motors and Unilever. Bono. Matt Damon. And then there, breathing the rarified air of global action on climate change, was Governor Charlie Baker — a Republican politician in unfamiliar water.
In New York City on Monday, on the third floor of the midtown Hilton, a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative got underway — a high profile event with leaders in politics, business, and advocacy. Baker was not only on the invitation list but asked to be onstage.
In another political era, a Republican presence at a major gathering on world problems might be unremarkable. But it stands out in a time of deep political division, when addressing the climate crisis in the United States has been largely left to Democrats. Baker and the mayor of Oklahoma City were the only Republican politicians invited to speak. And Baker’s attendance, along with liberal leaders like Governor Gavin Newsom of California, comes as moderate Republicans, now on the fringes of their party, are quietly being enlisted in — or inserting themselves into — the climate fight.
Bob Inglis, a former Republican US Representative from South Carolina who now tries to sell conservatives around the country on climate action, noted the rarity of “this kind of creature” — the Republican who leads on climate change. “Surely Governor Baker was one of the first to step out into the open field,” he said.
Clinton, in his opening statement, noted the urgency of the moment, and the need to get past the political barriers slowing action on climate.
“I’ve always wanted to go beyond the harsh, polarizing name-calling that characterizes the political debate today,” Clinton said. “When all is said and done, if we can’t answer the ‘How’ question, the rest doesn’t amount to much.”
As Baker enters the final stretch of his final term in office, some say the list of his achievements on climate change rivals that of even states considered leaders, like New York and California. He’s signed major bills — jump-starting the offshore wind industry, committing to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and, most recently, boosting the clean energy industry in the state— while carrying out an ambitious program to help communities address their climate vulnerabilities.
His track-record is not without critics. Some say he delayed implementing programs to achieve the net-zero emissions mandate he signed in 2021 or that he only approved climate bills after watering them down. Critics have noted that the footprint of natural gas has only grown during his tenure, adding that Massachusetts’ progress happened despite Baker’s leadership, not because of it.
On Monday, as he sat onstage beside fellow panelists, the achievements he touted and the case he made for addressing the climate crisis — primarily, jobs and the economy — spoke to traditional conservative values. It hearkened back to the Republican party that established the Environmental Protection Agency under President Nixon — not the one that has more recently sought to limit the agency’s reach.
“I’m really proud of the fact that we are, for all intents and purposes, the only state I know of that really went hard at the resiliency piece at the same time that we went hard at some of the issues around alternative energy solutions,” Baker said.
During his time in office, Baker has transitioned from a candidate who, in 2010, questioned the science of climate change to a governor who, a year from now, may count his accomplishments on the issue as a cornerstone of his legacy.
Over the clatter of a plant-based lunch on Monday — a “small but simple action we can take to support sustainability,” according to a sign — Baker said that in Massachusetts, environmental issues aren’t partisan like they are in the rest of the country.
But, when it comes to political leadership nationally, that’s not true. The federal Inflation Reduction Act, for instance — the major federal climate bill that was signed earlier this year — passed without a single Republican signature. Last month, 22 of the 30 Republican governors in the country panned it as a “reckless tax and spending spree.”
On his panel Monday, Baker called the bill an “enormous incentive opportunity for all of us.”
Even so, Baker and others see an opening to appeal to some ordinary conservatives, through the jobs and economic possibilities of the seismic energy transition that addressing the climate crisis will demand.
Several companies — Unilever and General Motors among them — spoke Monday about their sustainability commitments and the role of business and finance in helping facilitate the clean energy transition. Gary Gensler, chair of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, joined by video conference to discuss the pending rule that would require companies to disclose their climate risks.
“Hundreds of companies are making disclosures on climate risks, some of it about strategy, some of it about greenhouse gas emissions,” said Gensler. The rule the SEC is considering is “to ensure that they’re truthful, what in the law is called Fair Dealing.”
Baker said he’s hopeful that step will start a landslide of climate action that starts with business and then goes beyond. “I think that has huge implications for politics, and for the urgency with respect to climate issues and I do think that will bleed pretty heavily into the Republican party in a good way.”