As lawmakers consider Baker’s amendments to climate bill, the fight for environmental justice continues.
On Jan. 14, at the end of the Massachusetts legislature’s last session, Gov. Charlie Baker delivered a bombshell.
“As we are all learning what the future will hold, I have concerns about the impacts portions of this bill will have for large sectors of the economy,” Baker wrote.
Climate and environmental justice advocates were not impressed.
“The governor’s pocket veto in the last session was very disappointing, not just to me as a legislator, but more importantly to the people of this commonwealth,” said Sen. Becca Rausch, a cosponsor of the bill.
Soon after Baker’s veto, early in the new two-year legislative session, lawmakers passed the same bill again, now for a second time, and sent it back to Baker. He returned it, with proposed amendments, on Feb. 7. Things have basically stood still on this front, at least publicly, since then.
Legislators can entertain Baker’s suggestions, or move ahead without him. Either way, there’s a lot in play, and in many ways the fight continues for climate justice advocates.
The bill as it is written is the most comprehensive climate legislation to pass through the state legislature since the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which it builds upon. At 56 pages, it establishes aggressive emissions targets for every five years, with limits specific to different sectors of the economy, culminating in net-zero emissions by 2050. And it defines “environmental justice populations” for the first time, providing protections for minority and low income communities. The bill also authorizes more offshore wind energy procurements, establishes a study into local health consequences of biofuel combustion, creates a clean energy job training program for fossil fuel workers and people living in populations disproportionately impacted by environmental injustice, and establishes a new building stretch code, with a definition of “net-zero building” that cities and towns can opt into.
For climate activists, the legislation is a breath of fresh air. “In this space, you’re used to bad news,” said Cabell Eames, the legislative director for 350 Massachusetts. “It’s better than we expected.”
The targets included increase every five years, and require the state to reduce emissions to 50% below 1990 levels by 2030, 75% below in 2040, and 85% below in 2050 (in which case carbon offsets would be used to reach net-zero). These emissions limits would be among the strongest in the nation.
“To address a crisis, you have to treat it like a crisis,” Eames said.
For the environmental justice groups, the bill is just as significant this time around.
“This has been over 20 years in the making, of getting environmental justice into law,” said María Belén Power, associate executive director of GreenRoots, a Chelsea-based environmental justice organization. “It’s crazy that it’s taken us this long to get some of the most basic protections.”
Power said that provisions in the bill will help protect Chelsea and East Boston, which are especially vulnerable to air pollution and negative effects of climate change, from sea-level rise to extreme temperatures. She worries about what might happen if a climate-fueled natural disaster hit her community. “We’re surrounded by water on three ways; the Chelsea creek, the Island End River, and the Mill creek, and we are lined with industrial facilities.”
In the push to pass this bill once and for all, GreenRoots is continuing to work with a variety of other organizations, including the North American Indian Center of Boston, Neighbor to Neighbor, 32BJ SEIU, Alternatives for Community and the Environment, Sunrise Movement Boston, 350 Mass, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, and others.
But despite wide-ranging advocacy for the measure and bipartisan support in the legislature, the coalition is still facing a powerful resistance. Among others, groups including the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, the Massachusetts Building Trades council, NAIOP (a real estate development association), National Federation of Independent Business, and the WesternMass Economic Development Council have stated strong opposition to parts of the bill, and are wielding their influence on Beacon Hill accordingly. In its materials, the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance calls the bill “a radical piece of legislation aimed at functionally eliminating the use of fossil fuels in Massachusetts within the next thirty years.”
Much of the criticism has focused on the opt-in building code, and the inclusion of the term “net-zero building.” Critics say that this stipulation will slow construction and hurt affordable housing goals.
Asked about the January veto, climate advocates call out Baker’s campaign funding. According to reports from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, the president of Massachusetts National Grid has given $6,000 to Baker’s campaigns since 2014. The president of Eversource, another Mass energy behemoth, has donated the same amount to the governor.
According to a 2021 study by researchers at the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University, the the most powerful group in the state on issues of climate and energy is none other than the coalition formed by National Grid and Eversource. It spends the most money, and is the most successful in influencing legislation. It also frequently opposes environmentalists on climate legislation.
Regarding this session and the current status of the bill, not all of Baker’s amendments cut against the wishes of environmental groups. In a letter sent to House and Senate leaders, six of these groups, including GreenRoots and the Environmental League of Massachusetts, urged the legislature to accept some of the amendments to the bill proposed by Baker. They support edits strengthening the bill on environmental justice, solar net-metering, energy efficiency, and some parts regarding building codes, regulations, and standards.
However, activists have urged lawmakers to reject proposals on the more contentious parts of the bill. As proposed by Gov. Baker, these include reductions of the 2030 and 2040 emissions requirements, the elimination of legally-binding sector sublimits, and the removal of the term “net-zero building” from the municipal opt-in building energy code.
“These changes are misaligned with the goals of the net-zero roadmap initially put forth by the Legislature,” the groups wrote in the letter.
Regardless of what language ends up in the final version of the bill, which passed in this session with enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto, environmental advocates say that there is still much work to be done to adequately address environmental justice and the climate crisis in Massachusetts.
“In the future, we’re actually looking to expand on what it means to be an environmental justice community,” says Jean-Luc Pierite, the President of the Board of Directors for the North American Indian Center of Boston. “We’re not just talking about people who reside in the area, we’re talking about tribes who have historical and ancestral ties to the land.”
For Pierite, this bill is a necessary step in the right direction, and he is disappointed to see any amendments that weaken its climate commitments.
“This is an existential crisis—this is something we all need to take serious action on,” Pierite said. “We can’t just weigh the interests of corporations over the needs of the planet. I think that we really need to have serious and radical action.”
Jon is a freelance journalist and a senior at Colorado College. He oversees the school's student publications and covers environmental issues for the Catalyst newspaper. Sign up for his newsletter at newenglandclimate.substack.com.