Charlie Baker urges Washington to act on climate change
WASHINGTON — Massachusetts’ Republican governor, Charlie Baker, on Wednesday called on the federal government to take significant action to respond to the threat of climate change, marking a sharp contrast with his party’s orthodoxy on the issue.
Baker testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources, which held its first hearing on climate change since 2009, part of an effort by Democrats to bring the issue to the fore now that they control the House.
“We understand the science and know the impacts are real because we are experiencing them firsthand,” Baker said.
Baker urged the government to increase funding to build more resilient infrastructure, create federal emissions targets that could vary by region, invest in research related to emissions reduction and climate change adaptation, and to generally incorporate climate change risk into federal planning decisions.
His remarks show a significant departure from the approach taken toward climate change by top Republicans, including President Trump, who has called climate change a “hoax,” disputed whether it is man-made, and pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord.
Just last week, Trump sent a tweet suggesting the historically cold weather then gripping the country was evidence that “global warming” has gone away.
(Scientists say there is evidence the planet is heating up over time, and that extreme weather is a hallmark of the changing climate.)
Baker’s testimony also shows how much he has evolved on the issue. In 2010, when he ran for governor unsuccessfully, he told a Globe reporter he wasn’t saying whether he believed in climate change because he didn’t know enough about it.
He later said humans were contributing to climate change. He recently called for a new tax on real estate transfers to fund preparations for climate change.
And on Wednesday, he drew on his experiences dealing with snowstorms, nor’easters, drought, and coastal erosion during his time in office to pressure the Trump administration to take more action.
“If people at the state level and people at the municipal level don’t talk about it” to federal officials, Baker said in an interview, “we can be pretty sure there won’t be [action].”
The hearing was one of two about climate change scheduled for Wednesday on Capitol Hill. The other was in the Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee on environment and climate change, which had not held a climate change hearing in six years, according to The Hill, a political news publisher.
“It is a very significant turning of the tide,” said Bob Deans of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It shows that this new leadership in the House is listening to the American people.”
Baker was asked by Democrats on the committee, which is chaired by Representative Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona, to appear with Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat from North Carolina.
“They want to pick apart administration policy,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who previously served as a spokesman for Republicans.
“What better way to do that than to have somebody from the president’s party do it for them? Especially a popular governor from the same party.”
While Trump and other Republicans, including Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, have expressed deep skepticism about climate change, more moderate Republicans have been willing to express concern about the problem.
By the end of the last Congress, 45 Republicans were members of the “climate solutions caucus,” although just under half of them either retired or lost their seats in the midterm elections as the Democratic wave swept a number of moderate Republicans out of office.
“The best thing anyone who cares about climate change can contribute at this moment in time is sobriety and sincerity,” said Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman who spoke out about the risks climate change posed to his district in South Florida but lost his seat. “That’s been lacking for so long from Republicans.”
In his testimony, Baker cast climate change as a bipartisan issue that affects people’s homes and livelihoods and the regional economy.
Grijalva, the chairman, asked the governors about the notion that it’s too late try to halt climate change — and that it would be too expensive.
Baker said the state and federal governments need to work together to confront a problem already affecting many.
“If you have farmers or fishermen or resort operators or foresters in your communities or in your districts, I promise you they are worrying about climate change all the time,” Baker said.
He cited Massachusetts’ emissions goals, which require the state by 2050 to reduce carbon emissions at least 80 percent below 1990 levels.
He also highlighted the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the state’s promotion of hydropower and offshore-wind energy, and the state’s “municipal vulnerability preparedness program,” which provides funding for local governments to adapt to climate change.
Representative Tom McClintock, a California Republican, questioned Baker about criticism of wind turbines in Falmouth, which the Cape Cod town recently voted to remove amid fierce neighborhood opposition and multiple lawsuits.
McClintock asked how complaints about noise and other issues squared with “the bright picture that [Baker] painted.”
The governor acknowledged the Falmouth project might not have been carried out perfectly, specifically regarding where the turbines were placed. He said the experience should discourage future projects like it, however.
“Sometimes, when something doesn’t go the way it should go, everybody blames the concept,” he said. “Well, sometimes we just screw up the way we implement it.”
Sara Chieffo of the League of Conservation Voters praised Baker for his willingness to testify.
“I think it shows that when it comes to elected officials that are working at a more state and local level, that the partisanship we see about climate change at the federal level is just not the same,” Chieffo said.
But other environmental advocates said they want Baker to go further.
“We hope that Charlie Baker is calling for more ambitious emissions reductions targets and more equitable policies on the federal level than he has implemented in Massachusetts,” said Deb Pasternak of the Massachusetts Sierra Club.