Everywhere you looked a couple of weeks back, there was the Green New Deal, an ambitious proposal to transition the entire US economy to a framework of sustainability and economic justice. A resolution urging creation of a GND was launched last week by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and veteran Sen. Ed Markey, to enthusiastic fanfare from its legions of supporters—and ominous warnings of doom from the corporate center and ideological right. Many mainstream figures, including Democratic Party luminaries and nearly 100 members of Congress, endorse it as an opening to urgent national action on the climate crisis. Notably, the resolution revolves around a broad push for economic and racial justice not usually associated with climate action, gaining it credibility with progressive constituencies crucial to mobilizing support.
Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts it is striking that in just the first month since beginning his second term, Gov. Charles Baker’s administration has failed on three major opportunities to advance sustainability and environmental justice, all of which openly benefited big-money interests at the expense of grassroots stakeholders’ rights to basic protections. And more decisions loom that could throw climate and equity obligations out the window.
First, in early January, came an air quality permit from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that moved closer the siting of a dangerous fracked gas pipeline compressor station in a densely populated area of Weymouth, over massive community opposition. This gambit was in service of Enbridge, one of the country’s largest oil and gas companies, trying desperately to build a gas pipeline into Canada after repeated setbacks.
Then, Gov. Baker refused to sign long-sought legislation to protect children and firefighters from toxic flame retardant chemicals after it passed votes in the House and Senate. He chose to side with corporate lobbyists despite strong support for the bill from House and Senate leadership, health professionals, organized labor, and the entire environmental community. In trying to explain his pocket veto, Baker quoted chemical industry talking points nearly verbatim.
The latest howler is a late-January ruling by the Baker-appointed Department of Public Utilities (DPU) that killed a carefully built consensus between advocates and utility companies to start creating fair access for renters to the state’s nation-leading $3 billion energy efficiency program. The deal would have incentivized the utilities to serve renters for the first time, by paying out a portion of their huge $130 million+ performance incentive only if they served at least 100,000 renters over three years, instead of looking at overall climate emissions reductions alone… that is, until Baker’s DPU abruptly excised that language from the state’s efficiency plan. A stream of increasingly frustrated advocates and directly affected stakeholders had demanded action over a year-long planning process, following a decade of complaints about structural barriers to receiving benefits promised them by this program—into which they pay on each utility bill. This DPU decision served the profit margins and opaque operations of the state’s all-powerful utility companies.
These travesties follow on the heels of others, like a decision last year to allow expansion of a toxic incinerator ash dump in Saugus, comprised of an unlined pit in marshland surrounded by low-income communities of color in need of “environmental justice.” Another fight is brewing in East Boston over a large electric utility substation in a residential area, which community advocates call highly dangerous and are mobilizing to defeat. All this and more leads observers to question Baker’s leadership given his increasingly dismal record, as a new crop of leaders here in Massachusetts and around the nation push in radically different policy directions.
Superstorms chew up and spit out entire cities and island nations, apocalyptic fires envelop what’s left of our forests, insect populations nosedive to extinction levels, refugees stream away from collapsed economies toward concentrations of wealth and power. People in the mainstream media wring hands or toss out opinions about these symptoms, but there’s little analysis about enablers in positions of power and the underlying structural problems in the economy. As a result, Gov. Baker’s popularity at the polls and reputation as a climate-friendly centrist belie his actual performance, but that may be changing as growing numbers of Massachusetts residents come to feel the consequences of his administration’s dinosaur thinking on matters of health, justice, and environment.
Alex Papali is a zero waste and clean energy organizer with Clean Water Action in Boston, a member of the statewide Green Justice Coalition.