During his last campaign for governor, Charlie Baker met with several of the state’s most prominent environmental advocates for a nonpartisan briefing at his campaign headquarters.
The advocates say the meeting with Baker in 2010 turned tense quickly, as the Republican candidate held forth in front of a whiteboard on why he believed climate change was not the result of human causes, a view at odds with most climate scientists.
“I was stunned, as I believed him to be a bright fellow,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon, the largest and oldest conservation group in New England. “However, he said there were those smarter than he that convinced him.”
The environmentalists have generally supported Democratic candidates, many of whom share their positions on climate change. What they say Baker said four years ago is now resurfacing as voters parse his record and his statements in his campaign against Attorney General Martha Coakley for the state’s top office.
Baker said he has a very different memory of the meeting, and recalls saying that “we should reduce our carbon footprint.” His campaign points to an interview he gave shortly after the meeting with the advocates, in which he said that scientists agree global temperatures are rising and “it’d probably be a good idea to do something about that.”
Baker has struck a markedly different tone this campaign, even agreeing, at least in broad terms, with Coakley, the Democratic nominee, on many major environmental issues. And he now says that humans are contributing to climate change.
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But his comments during the private briefing on environmental issues in 2010, a service that the environmental advocates have provided for decades to candidates running for governor, suggest his views were more conservative than previously reported.
The environmental advocates who provided the account to the Globe all believe strongly that humans are contributing to climate change. And they gave similar accounts of the meeting in separate interviews with a Globe reporter.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said it became more of a debate than a briefing and described the Republican candidate as “unnecessarily combative and abrasive.”
“He was more eager to prove us wrong than hear our positions, on the causes of climate change, the costs associated with renewable energy, and Cape Wind, in particular,” he said. “He referenced the 1 percent of climate scientists that doubt the man-made causes of climate change. We found that startling.”
Sue Reid, former director of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, and John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, also attended the meeting and said they, too, were surprised by Baker’s adamant views about climate change.
“Mr. Baker didn’t seem to have a strong understanding of climate science or the facts about renewable energy,” Rogers said.
Tim Buckley, a spokesman for the Baker campaign, dismissed the advocates as partisans and rebutted their account.
“Charlie has been clear in his pro-environment positions, and as governor would work aggressively to reduce the Commonwealth’s greenhouse emissions,” he said. “Other individuals present at the meeting, as well as media reports from 2010, contradict the accounts related four years later by Mr. Bachrach, a lifelong Democrat party booster and supporter of Attorney General Coakley.”
Has Baker changed on climate change over the past four years?
“I don’t think that much changed at all,” Baker said in a telephone interview.
“We had a conversation about which proposals, which options, would be most likely to have the most benefit to reduce the carbon footprint most quickly,” he said, recalling the 2010 meeting. “The picture [on the board] was drawing on the option that would generate the biggest bang.”
Over the past four years, Baker said, he has done more reading about climate change. “I certainly think that when you talk to almost anyone who’s in the insurance business, they’ve written a lot of reports about the impacts of rising sea levels, and those reports are pretty compelling,” he said.
He has also agreed to appear at this year’s environmental debate with Coakley, which will be held Wednesday at Suffolk University Law School.
In 2010, Baker skipped the only debate on environmental issues, even after hosts offered to change the date to accommodate his schedule. When a Globe reporter questioned Baker about his views on climate change during the last campaign, the Harvard-educated candidate said: “I’m not saying I believe in it. I’m not saying I don’t. You’re asking me to take a position on something I don’t know enough about. I absolutely am not smart enough to believe that I know the answer to that question.’’
This campaign season, Baker has emphasized data that confirm climate change is underway. He said the state should take economically feasible steps to reduce its carbon footprint, including an emphasis on alternative energy.
In suggesting the advocates have a political agenda, Buckley noted that Bachrach and Clarke are registered Democrats and that over the past decade Bachrach has given more than $13,000 in campaign contributions to state Democrats including Governor Deval Patrick, the Democratic State Committee, and Coakley, to whom he donated $125 in 2005, according to state records.
Buckley also said Bachrach spoke in different terms about the meeting when interviewed shortly afterward by Commonwealth Magazine, calling it “a very healthy and constructive conversation.”
In his defense, Bachrach said he was being polite when speaking to Commonwealth Magazine and called the accusations that he is speaking out for partisan reasons “petty.”
“We’re a nonpartisan organization, and at that time, I wanted to put things in the most positive light possible for all candidates,” he said. “I was being kind four years ago; I’m being blunt today.”
He noted that he was only responding to questions about the meeting four years ago.
“I think it’s a perspective that needs to be explained,” he said. “There are changing and evolving positions, and the contrast between 2010 and 2014 is notable.”
He added: “We have great respect for Charlie Baker. If we disagree, it is on serious issues of environmental protection and climate change . . . not partisanship.”
Clarke noted that he, like Baker, served in the administration of Governor William F. Weld, as an official in the former Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, and that he had voted for Weld, a Republican.
“I’m far from a partisan Democrat,” said Clarke, who has also been critical of Coakley.
But he and the others said they were not surprised by the Baker campaign’s effort to refute what they recall from their meeting.
“I don’t care now if he believes climate change is man-made or natural, as long as he realizes it’s real and it’s happening and wants to do something about it,” Clarke said.
He was gratified after a similar briefing the advocates gave Baker this past spring, when the candidate made it clear that he is now a “firm believer in climate change and adaptation as a method of dealing with it,” Clarke said.
“We were stunned the first time by his positions,” Clarke said. “We’re thoroughly pleased that he has come around.”
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.