“In Boston, when we talk about bold, systemic changes, the barriers are never about resources. The barrier is always our political will.”
In their May 24 virtual debate on energy and the environment, it was difficult to differentiate between Boston mayoral candidates as they launched into their 60-second spiels about why they are the climate-justice candidate.
There are no climate-change deniers in this race, and all seem to have at least a basic understanding of the crisis’ devastating and disproportionate impacts. But there are still serious differences in how each candidate would approach the challenges ahead, and for many climate advocates, one candidate is leading the pack.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, one of the early frontrunners in a crowded race, has received important endorsements from the Boston hub of the Sunrise Movement and the Massachusetts chapter of the Sierra Club.
Key to both endorsements? Wu’s comprehensive ‘Boston Green New Deal’, a plan adapting the federal proposal (introduced to Congress in 2019 by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey) to the city level. The initiative, which she first presented last summer following a year-and-a-half of work, is nearly 50 pages long, covering everything from rising temperatures to housing and food justice.
“We are in a moment of urgency,” Wu said in a recent interview with the Dig. “Boston is a city that is uniquely vulnerable to climate change. The cost of delay or inaction is tremendous. And so this plan lays out a roadmap for what we could do right away at the city level, and how we do it.”
Like the federal proposal, Wu’s plan sets forth a slate of progressive policies aimed at reducing emissions, preparing the city for a more extreme climate, and eliminating existing poverty and racial inequality in the process. For some advocates, this plan is a political game-changer, and indicative of Wu’s unique commitment to true climate justice.
“Her Green New Deal for Boston is unprecedented, and her mastery of issues on a city level is unprecedented,” said Rev. Vernon K. Walker, the chair of the political committee for the Sierra Club’s Massachusetts Chapter, and a member of their executive board. “Simply put, her Green New Deal will be a roadmap for delivering the kinds of structural changes needed in the city, in order to provide a future built on sustainable energy, good jobs, and healthy and connected communities.”
Throughout her time on the Boston City Council, Wu has built an impressive track record on climate issues. She has successfully led efforts to bring Community Choice Electricity to Boston (which increased the default level of renewable energy), protect the city’s wetlands, ban single-use plastic bags, and give formal city council support to the federal Green New Deal.
But more than just climate, the focus of the Boston New Deal, she says, “is just as much about how we hit our emissions goals and address the impacts of climate change as it is about reaching for that just and equitable future that’s within reach, and democratizing our decision making so that everyone in our community has a stake, and a say in shaping our future.”
Which isn’t to say that Wu’s Green New Deal doesn’t focus on cutting emissions. Her plan proposes more aggressive city emissions goals: carbon neutrality by 2040 and 100% renewable electricity by 2030 (compared to the city’s current goal of carbon neutrality and carbon-free electricity by 2050).
But among other things, the plan also challenges the city to decomodify housing through community-based models, and calls for fare-free transit, increased multimodal transportation, a renter’s right to counsel, green jobs training, and a youth-focused Urban Climate Corps.
These issues of transportation, housing, and jobs (all deeply intertwined with our response to the climate crisis), were especially important for the young climate activists at Sunrise Boston, who endorsed Wu in January.
“She has a very systems-level understanding and approach to how to tackle these issues and crises, and how housing and transportation, jobs and youth jobs, specifically play into it,” said Emma Ryan, a member of the Sunrise Boston political team. “In order to address the scale of the challenges that we face, both within Boston and just broadly, we need to be really expansive in our thinking about how we address those problems.”
In a way, the Wu campaign can be seen as a test of the organizing and political power of the Green New Deal at a local level. This past fall, US Sen. Ed Markey (who notably authored the 2019 proposal in the Senate) overcame an uphill battle for reelection against Congressman Joe Kennedy III, in large part thanks to the vigorous support of youth climate justice activists, including the Sunrise Movement.
Ryan notes that many of the same members of the youth movement that helped reelect Markey (aka the Markeyverse) are now part of the movement organizing for Wu in Boston (aka the Wuniverse). Some of the unofficial Twitter pages created to support Markey have been since been converted to support Wu (Theater Kids for Michelle Wu, Witchy Feminist Rockstars 4 Michelle Wu, KPop Stans for Michelle Wu, etc).
Beyond the meme pages, Sunrise Boston has held semi-frequent meetings with the candidate, encouraged members to participate in phone banks and canvassing, and organized in conjunction with Youth for Wu (a group independent from her campaign). As with the Markey campaign, Wu’s strong support of the Green New Deal is a major motivator for her younger supporters, who she sees as an integral part of her campaign.
“I’m really grateful to our youth leaders and organizers who have been shaping this campaign from the very beginning,” the candidate said. “It’s been central to how I have been able to serve on the City Council, and how I’m running this campaign, to follow the lead of youth activists.”
However, it is often repeated that young people typically do not show up for local elections. One 2016 study from Portland State University found the typical voter in a Boston city election to be 14 years older than the average voting age resident. Despite making up nearly half of the voting age population, Boston residents aged 18 to 34 amounted to just about 20% of the votes.
Even if elected, implementing the transformative changes that Wu advocates for in the Boston Green New Deal will be no easy task. Still, she is hopeful that by continuing to organize with constituents on the ground and utilizing federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, Boston can make a major step forward in an equitable response to the climate crisis. The city is set to receive over $700 million, which Wu hopes will be put towards a green pandemic recovery and implementing lasting change within the city. But overall, she doesn’t see funding as the biggest obstacle in the way of a Green New Deal.
“In Boston, when we talk about bold, systemic changes, the barriers are never about resources,” she said. “The barrier is always our political will, and whether we are choosing to confront our crises head on.”
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.