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Yvonne Abraham

A triumph of short-termism in New Hampshire

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu Paul Hayes for The Boston Globe/File

The governor of New Hampshire appears determined to cut off his constituents’ noses to spite their faces.

How else to explain Republican Chris Sununu’s refusal to entertain a regional pact designed to cut carbon emissions, even before the details of the agreement have been set?

The pact, called the Transportation Climate Initiative, would reduce vehicle emissions and fund cleaner transportation options in 12 East Coast states and the District of Columbia, via fees on fuel distributors.

If distributors pass those fees along to consumers, gas prices could increase by between 5 cents and 17 cents per gallon, depending on how aggressively states decide to limit emissions.

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That projection was enough to turn off Sununu, who took his ball and went home a few weeks ago, dismissing TCI as “a boondoggle,” and complaining that Granite State drivers would be stuck paying for crumbling infrastructure in other states.

“New Hampshire is a rural state, and Governor Sununu is not going to force his constituents to pay more at the gas pump,” read a statement from his press office. Sununu says emissions will decline even without TCI.

But the numbers released so far give the lie to Sununu’s pose: If states agree to reduce emissions by 25 percent, TCI is expected to raise $6.25 billion per year. About $120 million of that would go to clean transportation solutions in New Hampshire, according to Bruce Ho, senior advocate in the climate and clean energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Nothing would stop Sununu using that money to help rural residents. All of the modeling suggests emissions would drop further under TCI than they would otherwise — and way further if federal reversals of vehicle regulations are allowed to stand. It’s also possible Sununu’s constituents will pay higher gas prices even if he stays out of the pact, said Ho, and get nothing in return.

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And drastically reducing emissions in New Hampshire and the other states would mean long-term benefits far more valuable than that annual windfall: It would mean healthier residents, with lower rates of asthma and other costly illnesses cars cause; a healthier renewable energy sector, which means more jobs; and, ultimately, cheaper transportation options as poorer and rural residents gain access to better transit and more fuel efficient vehicles.

It would also protect the economy the state already has, one dependent on the health of its ski industry, its shoreline, and its farms, all of which are threatened by warming.

“This is also about economic development,” said State Senator David Watters, who heads the transportation committee. “The opportunity is enormous.”

But we appear to have become severely allergic to such long-term thinking in this country. This is partly human nature: We can feel the pain of paying more at the pump even before it happens, but the prospect of handing a warmer and more dangerous planet to our children is a more abstract proposition. Climate change deniers, fossil fuel fossils, and pretty much the entire GOP have capitalized on that very human limitation for decades.

Our own governor is a notable exception: I’ve given Charlie Baker some grief over transportation, but bless him for leading the way here, deploying his political capital and his party affiliation to push an ambitious bipartisan effort.

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Would that New Hampshire’s Republican governor had Baker’s foresight. Sununu has stood in the way of sound environmental initiatives repeatedly, allowing the state to fall further behind by almost every measure.

In this, he is carrying on a family tradition. His father, former governor John H. Sununu, has long proclaimed that climate science is bunk, a Trojan horse deployed by anti-growth, anti-capitalist forces.

And the elder Sununu, who became chief of staff to George H.W. Bush in 1989, wasn’t just talk: Bush came into office promising to be an environmental champion. But Sununu scuttled what was then the world’s best chance at slowing climate change, the first international treaty on limiting carbon emissions.

We are paying for that inaction today. And now we’re contending with even worse at the federal level, as the Trump administration rolls back scores of already inadequate environmental regulations, handing windfalls to polluters.

The people of New Hampshire will pay for Chris Sununu’s stubbornness. We all will. There are no walls between states, no way to keep the pollution he seems determined to tolerate — for the sake of low gas prices — from blowing across the border.

For better or worse, we’re all in this together. Perhaps, one day, even the shortsighted Sununus of the world will see that.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham