Hundreds of young people, including some too young to vote, stormed the State House on Friday, issuing a forceful rebuke to lawmakers who they say have not acted swiftly enough to cut greenhouse gas emissions in Massachusetts.
The students have set their sights on a group of bills they see as essential to a Massachusetts Green New Deal, especially one requiring the state to get all its energy from renewable sources by 2045. They danced, chanted, and criticized what they described as the plodding pace of progress in the Legislature, urging immediate, aggressive action from the Democrats in charge.
“Climate change is an emergency,” said Chris D’Agostino, the state policy leader for Sunrise Boston, the youth-led climate group that helped organize the rally.
The “100 percent renewables” bill the students support resembles legislation already passed in six other states, including New York and California. But in Massachusetts, a similar bill went nowhere last session and now remains in committee.
“We’re also standing outside of Speaker of the House Bob DeLeo’s office because he also has the power to push these bills through committee and into law, and he is not doing his job,” Ross Quinn, 20, said to the cheers of his peers in the third-floor hallway of the State House. The Legislature is currently out of formal session, so most lawmakers weren’t in the building.
In a statement, DeLeo noted the House this summer passed a $1.3 billion program, called Green Works, that includes money to help municipalities reduce emissions and respond to the effects of climate change. The speaker said that he looks forward to Senate action on that legislation and that other bills “remain under review.”
The city’s youth climate strike was planned to coincide with UN talks on climate this week in Madrid, where 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg joined a march of 500,000 people, according to organizers’ estimates.
The Boston rally began at Copley Square and ended inside the State House, where a crowd of activists chanted at the doors to Governor Charlie Baker’s office. Twenty seven people, all over age 18, were arrested for refusing to leave, State Police said.
Researchers have warned that seas are warming and glaciers are melting at faster rates, potentially bringing the world closer to a cascade of tipping points or irreversible changes that would dramatically shift life on Earth. A report last year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said global emissions must be cut roughly in half by 2030, and to net zero by midcentury, to avoid catastrophic warming.
The 100 percent renewables bill in Massachusetts would require the state to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2035, and all of its energy, including for transportation and heating, from renewables by 2045. Transportation accounts for more than 40 percent of emissions statewide.
“It’s ambitious and aggressive, but it’s in line with what we need to do,” said Ben Hellerstein, the state director for Environment Massachusetts.
The legislation, which Hellerstein said has wide support among lawmakers, would create a clean energy council, a workforce development council to help transition workers from the fossil fuel industry into green jobs, and a research center at a public university to study renewable technology.
“It is not unusual for bills of this magnitude to actually go through the legislative process for a few terms,” said Representative Marjorie Decker, who filed this bill and a similar one last session. But, she said, “That’s hard to accept when we know the science screams for immediate, urgent action.”
Dan Dolan, the president of the New England Power Generators Association, said his organization supports putting a “meaningful price on carbon emissions,” but not the renewables bill.
“To continue to have a reliable and resilient electricity supply chain means we’re going to [need to] continue to have a diverse energy source mix,” Dolan said, noting that generation from renewable sources such as wind and sun can be erratic.
Representative Thomas Golden, cochair of the committee where the bill now sits, said it is too early to know its fate.
“Our job is to study it, to play the ‘what if’ games, to continue to reach out to experts,” he said, adding, “passing something, just to pass it, if you can’t implement it . . . I’d rather work on the things that we can change and we will change.”
But to youth activists seeing other states embrace strong green energy mandates, incremental progress is not enough.
“Before three years ago, 100 percent renewable legislation was a little radical,” said Jacob Stern, an organizer with the state Sierra Club, which backs the bill. Now, he said, that’s shifting quickly.
Golden said Massachusetts has made significant strides on advancing renewable energy, citing legislation that requires the state to increase its supply of hydropower from Canada, and that will add up to 3,200 megawatts of offshore wind. The state has also mandated that utilities accelerate their buying of renewable energy every year. In 2016, state officials said emissions had declined in Massachusetts by 21 percent since 1990. (Existing state law requires Massachusetts to reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2020.)
“The history is crystal clear in showing how aggressive we are in trying to green the grid,” Golden said.
In addition, Golden said, the Green Works bill that the House passed would create a grant program to help cities and towns fund projects to ease the effects of rising seas. That bill would also target some emissions, helping communities fund electric buses and trains, for example.
But to environmental activists, Green Works focuses too much on reacting to climate change, and not enough on stopping it.
The Senate has not taken up the Green Works bill. Senate president Karen Spilka has committed to bringing a climate bill to the floor of the Senate by the end of January.