Political intelligence

Environmental groups bid for more political muscle

Call it, if you must, the revenge of the tree-huggers. Say the greens are seeing red. But, whatever you do, don’t pat a suddenly feisty group of environmentalists on their collective head.

A newly formed coalition of pro-green groups with ties to both business and labor says it’s fed up with receiving laudatory lip service from Beacon Hill but getting little in the way of policy payoff. State officials boast of strong environmental laws, but a newly cohesive group of activists believes environmental considerations rank too far down the priority list at the State House.

To that end, three members of a greenhouse gas reductions advisory council last month resigned in protest of what they said was the Patrick administration’s refusal to grant them sufficient input, particularly around the touchy issue of energy imports.


“We weren’t going to be played with,” said George Bachrach, a former state senator who helms the Environmental League of Massachusetts, or ELM, and logged one of the resignations. “We wanted to send a message to not only this governor, but also the next governor.”

Bachrach, who is not at all bashful about voicing concern about the content of articles in this newspaper, is also behind MUSCLE, or Mass. United for Science, Climate, Environment, the alliance taking shape between ELM and the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters, working with Clean Water Action and the Sierra Club.

ELM has been assiduously spreading its wings, trying to build ties with some of the state’s biggest employers through a formalized collaboration, the ELM Corporate Council. And there is the ELM Labor Council, intended to promote job creation in infrastructure build-out and repair.

MUSCLE is different in that it’s intended to inject environmental 501(c)(4) groups — essentially politically focused nonprofits — into state elections, down to the legislative level. They’ve held a campaign boot camp, embedded young activists in targeted campaigns, and this week are rolling out the first wave of what could be up to 20 endorsements in this fall’s legislative races.


They have wrung from each of the gubernatorial candidates with whom they’ve met formally a promise to drive environmental spending back up to 1 percent of the state budget, a paltry-sounding figure until you look at the current share, 0.6 percent.

They plan provocative newspaper ads around climate change, showing a flooded T car or Fenway Park underwater. (Standard disclosure about the Sox and the Globe’s shared owner, but also a note that that would be a terrific Winter Classic.)

“We’ve spent too long getting patted on the head and being told we’re nice people,” Bachrach said. “We think these issues are more urgent.”

The challenge for MUSCLE is, of course, unchanged from the obstacles that have faced environmental advocates for decades. Everyone is an environmentalist, until environmental concerns create friction with their own more tightly held priorities. As Vito Corleone put it, during a discussion about economic growth and the rather targeted environmental issue of poppy harvesting and distribution, “I congratulate you on your new business. I know you’ll do very well, and good luck to you. Especially since your interests don’t conflict with mine.”

Whether these new coalitions remain solid or begin to fray is unclear. For instance, how does a labor union resist the chance to build a new pipeline? And how does a business owner sign off when MUSCLE endorses a challenger to an incumbent who’s helped the business in the past?


Mike Monahan, the politically active business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 103, which is a member of the ELM Labor Council, put it this way: “We’re certainly supportive of any cause that’s going to help the environment, to a point.”

But, Monahan noted, Local 103 joins other unions in backing the controversial Keystone pipeline, the bête-noire of the environmental movement, and nuclear power plants.

“We’re electricians,” he said. “We have to feed our families.”

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Jim.OSullivan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.