Melissa Hoffer’s job is unprecedented. As Governor Maura Healey’s new climate chief, she is taking on a role that is not only a first in Massachusetts but in the country as well: a Cabinet-level post with a mandate to do nothing less than reshape the state government to focus on climate.
The goals that come with the job are formidable. She has been handed far-reaching responsibilities for acquiring federal climate money and taking on some of the thorniest obstacles to a speedy transition away from fossil fuels. But a core mission, she said in an interview with the Globe on Thursday, is spreading responsibility for climate action from a few specialized state agencies to all corners of the government, so that it informs all relevant decision-making.
The aim, she said, is urgent action in a world already plagued by weather disasters and where Massachusetts is experiencing its warmest winter on record.
“We have a very limited and fast-closing window to make the change that we need to make with climate so that this can be a habitable planet,” Hoffer said.
Hoffer comes to the position after stints at the Environmental Protection Agency and the state attorney general’s office, where she led Healey’s lawsuit against ExxonMobil alleging the company deceived the public about climate change. She is now faced with marshaling a sprawling bureaucracy.
Hoffer said she is holding monthly meetings with the Cabinet secretaries of each state agency to home in on issues that address climate. The Healey administration also created lower-level secretariats within each agency, that are combing through the state’s climate laws to identify roles their agencies could play in advancing the climate mission. Importantly, Hoffer said, they are also looking for obstacles that might stand in the way. She said part of her job, then, will be finding ways to overcome them.
“It’s important to have somebody who is within the governor’s office, who’s been tasked and directed specifically by the governor to undertake this task,” she said. “It gives us not only authority, but it gives us tremendous responsibility to help make sure that when agencies identify a hurdle . . . our job is to facilitate agencies in doing what they need to do.”
Doing so, Hoffer believes, will allow the state to move much faster to a net-zero future. That will be particularly important in getting the state to catch up on climate targets it is now at risk of not meeting, such as having hundreds of thousands of heat pumps installed in homes, and hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles on the road before the end of the decade. The net-zero targets also include converting state fleets to electric cars and trucks and state buildings from fossil fuel heat to electric.
Some of that will require work by agencies that traditionally have not had active climate roles. That is particularly true for some longer-range plans such as those that call for cities to be reshaped to encourage less driving, she said.
“When you’re thinking about what’s the relationship between land use and transportation and housing, those are things where they are extremely important to the climate, but they’re not what you think of in terms of environmental issues,” Hoffer said.
One of the problems Hoffer is hoping to help solve is a major shortage of workers needed to make the clean energy transition happen, such as electricians and heat pump installers. Massachusetts has a shortage of between 30,000 and 40,000 of those workers, according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. Hoffer said she is meeting with the heads of the education, labor and workforce, and energy and environment agencies to make a plan to fill those jobs.
Another task: creating a Green Bank, an idea Healey floated in the climate plan she published as a candidate. That institution could spur investment in low-carbon, climate-resilient infrastructure, and provide seed money to clean energy companies started by people of color or residents of communities suffering heavy environmental burdens.
“We want to make sure our bank does the kind of stuff that the private market won’t do on its own,” Hoffer said. “And that means this is another way that we can really make sure that this is a just transition and make sure that the kind of financing that we need to have everybody benefit from this clean energy transition, and in particular focus on low and moderate income housing.”
As climate chief, she’ll also be fighting for some of the $369 billion in federal money for clean energy transition from the federal Inflation Reduction Act that passed last year. That means working with agencies across the government to develop competitive applications for projects that, for example, add EV chargers or solar panels, or otherwise address greenhouse gas emissions.
So far, Hoffer has two staffers working with her. Healey’s budget proposal includes $500,000 for Hoffer’s office.
Hoffer comes to the climate role at a time when Massachusetts could make major strides on climate change, with a politically aligned governor and Legislature, recently passed state and federal climate legislation, and an expected boom in offshore wind just around the corner.
She said the stakes of succeeding are high.
“We understand that climate change is a defining issue of our time,” Hoffer said. “It affects all aspects of human endeavor. And so that means it really affects all aspects of government.”