“Science doesn’t care if we’re first in the nation… better than bad isn’t good enough when it comes to climate.”
As the Boston mayoral election barrels toward its conclusion, the extent of what can be accomplished in the city will still depend on the political leadership at the state level. Ben Downing, a former state senator from Pittsfield now running for governor, hopes to change the conversation around what’s possible in Mass and bring the climate crisis to the forefront of the state’s politics.
For context, compared to incumbent Gov. Charlie Baker, Downing is a downright climate revolutionary. If elected, he promises to convert the state to 100% clean electricity by 2030, and to convert all non-electric energy use to clean energy by 2040.
But Downing is hardly a starry-eyed idealist, and certainly not a newbie to climate policy. He served five terms in the state senate, from 2006 to 2016. For three of these terms, he chaired the Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy Committee. After leaving office, he worked at Nexamp, a clean energy company. Now a resident of East Boston, Downing is a strong supporter of fare-free transit and a Massachusetts Civilian Climate Corps, plus opposes all new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state and hopes to require at least half of all climate spending to directly benefit environmental justice communities.
“The thing that drives me nuts about where we are right now—it’s the reason that I’m hopeful but it’s also what drives me nuts—is that we have the solutions,” Downing said in an interview. “What’s holding us back is not technology, what’s holding us back is a lack of political leadership, full stop, end of story.”
Downing is quick to point out how the climate is deeply intertwined with all other major issues facing the state.
“It’s daunting when you think about it, because I think for those of us who care about this issue, we see it as the overarching issue that’s going to define the next 50, 100 years,” he said. “I care deeply about transportation and housing, and I see those as climate issues. And so I think the role of a governor is to take some of the laws that are both on the books to the next level, and also to have a much greater sense of urgency and focus administration-wide on everything that we do.”
The candidate’s intersectional view of climate reflects a Green New Deal-style approach to climate change that would encompass all areas of government, and focus on the interplay of the crisis with housing, transportation, poverty, hunger, and racial justice. In office, he said he would create a cabinet-level appointment to coordinate climate action across state governments, and assign each department a climate-specific mandate.
Based on this interplay of issues, he hopes to bring a broad coalition of people together for strong climate action.
“There will be people who come to climate because they focus on transportation policy, on water resource planning, on indigenous rights, immigrant rights,” Downing said. “They might come to it on economic justice. They might come to it on housing and the need to build clean affordable housing for everyone in Massachusetts. They could come to it from any number of different ways, but you’ve got to make sure that the doors are open for them.”
Reflecting on his time in the state senate, Downing said that a sense of complacency was one of the most significant obstacles to strong climate action in the state.
“We like to pat ourselves on the back and say, Well, we’re first in the nation,” Downing said. “Climate science doesn’t care if we’re first in the nation… better than bad isn’t good enough when it comes to climate.”
In the corner office of the State House, while Gov. Baker is no longer an outright climate denier, he has frequently found himself at odds with climate activists. He notably pushed for weaker emissions targets in the state’s ‘Next Generation Roadmap’ climate bill, has consistently supported or enabled fossil fuel projects throughout the state, cut funding for public transportation, and oversaw a significant drop in staffing and enforcement of regulations at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Still, while a strong majority of Mass residents are concerned about the climate crisis, Baker remains broadly popular in the state. He has yet to announce whether he will seek another term in 2022 or look to pass off the torch to his Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, but regardless of who helms the Republican ticket, the climate future of the commonwealth will be on the ballot.
Having served in the state senate during the administrations of both Baker and Democrat Deval Patrick, Downing said he noticed a significant drop in urgency around climate issues once the former took office, from the procurement of offshore wind to connecting clean energy to the grid.
“I think what we saw from the Baker administration was lip service without urgent action, certainly not the prioritization that climate requires, and definitely not a prioritization around equity and justice principles,” Downing said. “I think the governor has looked at it and said, What do I have to do so that people think I’m doing something?”
For Boston, Downing said that a new administration in the State House could open up a new world of possibilities.
“Boston shouldn’t have to spend their time and resources fighting against an ill-conceived, ill-cited substation in East Boston. They shouldn’t have to spend their time fighting Eversource in court, but rather should be spending their time, effort, and energy, trying to deploy more clean energy in more locations,” the candidate said.
“They shouldn’t be spending their time having to go to the T and it’s governing board trying to make the case against service cuts, but rather have an administration that’s trying to invest more in transit, build more transit solutions, and get to fare-free transit. That is a completely different operating scenario for them.”
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.