Andrew Breiner

The Weird And Wondrous Politics Of Climate Change In Massachusetts

George Bachrach, a former state senator, has spent the last seven years as the President of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, briefing candidates and incumbents on environmental policy, and the goals of his influential non-profit. But last month, when Bachrach’s group hosted a forum for all six candidates for state governor, he found himself in an odd situation.

The five candidates who showed up were Democrats, so, Bachrach noted, it was tough to get much of an environmental policy debate out of them. They roundly agreed on two of the group’s most important issues: that climate change is real, and that action needs to be taken to prevent and adapt to it.

Democratic candidates supporting a pro-climate agenda would not be surprising in any state. But in Massachusetts, Bachrach says, it’s particularly necessary. Because if you’re a climate denier in Massachusetts, you haven’t got a chance at winning elected office.

“Frankly, being a [climate] denier … probably suggests a slew of another set of positions that would make you un-electable in Massachusetts,” Bachrach said. “It suggests a set of values that probably transcend climate, and that’s not what voters here are looking for.”

Maurice Cunningham, an associate professor of political science at UMass Boston, whose research focuses on the changing political culture of the state, concurs: “I don’t think climate deniers influence anything in Massachusetts,” he said. “In certain wings of the Republican party, sure, [climate denial] exists. But that’s just a sliver of a party that’s a just sliver of the electorate.”

Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate for governor who didn’t show up to Bachrach’s forum, has not yet said much on the climate front. That’s not particularly surprising. Baker isn’t facing any like-minded challengers (he won enough delegates at the recent Republican nominating convention to keep Tea Party rival Mark Fisher from the ballot), and has a solid seven months before election day to build his platform.

The real climate policy debate happening now is among the five Democratic candidates, who will face off for a spot on the primary ballot at the party nominating convention in June. All of the candidates agree that climate change is problem, but come at the issue from different viewpoints — some shaped by their unique personal and professional lives, and some shaped by political realities. ThinkProgress held interviews with all five candidates to hone in on their positions.

A Race Without Noise

When climate deniers can’t get elected, the entire debate changes. No longer must people look to the question of “does she” or “doesn’t she” acknowledge climate science to decide who to vote for. No longer are voters’ news feeds clogged with blatant denialism, the asinine argument of “global cooling,” or comparisons of the climate agenda to a “Stalinist mandates.”

For people whose political environments are still saturated this kind of debate, they must at times wonder what climate change politics would look like without science deniers. The answer is something inherently less colorful, but entirely more substantial: an actual debate on candidates’ proposed solutions, and on who will be most likely to carry them out.

It might not be surprising that out of the five Democratic candidates, the leader of the pack is the most measured on climate policy. Attorney General Martha Coakley — who famously lost the U.S. Senate seat in 2010 to Scott Brown — has a slew of pro-environment positions, but has been criticized by staunch environmentalists for not going far enough. For example, she has been more hesitant on taxing carbon emissions than her fellow candidates. She also has a history of pushing for fossil fuel use in the state, if only because her current job as Attorney General means she serves as the advocate for her state’s electric ratepayers.

“[Coakley] is the one candidate that has had some issues in the past that were concerning,” Bachrach said.

Coakley is by no means conservative, though. Her answers to ThinkProgress’ questions (of the five candidates, Coakley was the only one to send e-mailed answers through a spokesperson) indicated an intention to promote policies that would increase the presence of clean energy and clean-tech businesses in the state. It was unclear exactly what those policies would be, but Coakley said she would work to provide “creative financing options” for energy efficiency programs in the state, including programs to educate consumers on the economic benefits of efficiency and increase energy retrofits. She and the other candidates all support a dramatic increase in funding for environmental protection in the state’s budget.

While touting her climate policies, Coakley is careful to be sensitive to business interests. She’s not for a state-based cap-and-trade system, instead saying it would be better to work with neighboring states to strengthen the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) — a cap-and-trade system throughout the Northeast — by continuing to lower emission allowances. “This will continue to reduce our carbon footprint while not placing Massachusetts businesses at a disadvantage,” she wrote.

Despite her being the front-runner, there are doubts as to whether Coakley will be the one who wins the most votes at the upcoming Democratic convention, an important indicator of who will actually win the primary. As National Journal points out, that honor could go to better-connected state Treasurer and former Democratic National Committee chairman Steven Grossman.

Second-place Grossman, as it turns out, is the second-most measured on environmental and climate solutions. Like Coakley, he expresses skepticism on a carbon tax, saying he’s “concerned about the disproportionate impact it could have on low and middle income families.” Like Coakley, he is careful to acknowledge the concerns of businesses when talking about any potential regulation on carbon emissions, or energy cost increases that could come with the approval of Cape Wind, the state’s long-awaited offshore wind farm.

And, like Coakley, Grossman believes increased energy efficiency programs are the “low-hanging fruit” in the state, the easiest and most realistic thing to achieve if he takes office.

But his list of climate goals is long; he names them quickly like the ingredients in an old family recipe. “Dramatic” public transportation expansion. Stopping methane leaks from natural gas pipelines. More smart-growth policies. Increasing energy audits. Aggressively working to meet the state’s renewable energy usage goals — and having a “vigorous” conversation about using hydropower from Canada in order to do it.

“I’m a big believer in taking a portfolio approach,” Grossman said.

The measured positions Coakley and Grossman take are likely more influenced by campaign dollars than their lesser-known competitors, Bachrach says.

“Candidates always want to appeal to the public as a populace to get mass support, but they need to finance their campaigns with members of the business industry, and sometimes that tempers how far they’re willing to go on some of these issues,” he said. “Even in Massachusetts, there’s been a tension between the demands of the business community to lower costs, and the advocacy of the environmental community.”

Compare that to the three lesser-known, lesser-funded candidates who all push hard for a carbon tax, talk aggressively about meeting carbon reduction goals, slam widespread dependence on fossil fuels, and warn of mass tragedies from future climate-related events if adaptation measures are not undertaken. Those candidate’s differences aren’t seen within the policies themselves, but within how each candidate approaches those polices philosophically.

Homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem, for instance, sees climate policies from a security perspective — they’re about defense, risk reduction, and resiliency. She speaks bluntly about her competitive nature; her desire to pull clean-tech businesses from other states to not only employ residents but to prevent weather disasters made worse by man-made climate change.

Joe Avellone comes at his positions from his background as a travelling business executive who has seen “amazing” pollution in both China and India. He says that visible knowledge has motivated him to fight climate change not only in Massachusetts, but internationally, by putting pressure on the federal government to take a role in stemming it. “Travelling there, you can see how fragile the planet really is,” he said.

Don Berwick, the former Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator who has largely been hailed the most progressive in the race, comes at climate change as a public health issue. He pulls inspiration from his family — a clan of political advocates and environmentalists with a solar-powered vacation house in New Hampshire — and his career as a pediatrician.

“You can’t be a pediatrician without thinking about the future,” he said. “It’s what I’ve cared about for my whole career.”

Policy priorities among the candidates differ only slightly. For Avellone and Berwick, it’s a carbon tax all the way — the thing they are most interested in pursuing above all others. Kayyem likes to advocate for a green bank to provide financing for renewable energy businesses. Berwick has proposed to create a new administrative position to be in charge of climate adaptation. Avellone is the only one to say he will model his carbon tax directly after British Columbia’s.

Five Candidates, No Disagreement

This kind of new-wave climate debate is only possible because of the uniqueness of Massachusetts’ political environment. In almost every state in America, a politician can deny the existence of man-made climate change and still retain a fighting chance for her coveted seat. In Massachusetts, though, many say climate denial is a political death wish.

Sure, the state has been hailed by Gallup as the most liberal in the nation. But even its most notable Republican politicians have steered clear of outright climate denial. Former governor Mitt Romney, for example, wrote in his 2010 book No Apology that “I believe that climate change is occurring. … I also believe that human activity is a contributing factor,” — though he added the important clause, “I am uncertain how much of the warming, however, is attributable to man.”

And Republican Scott Brown, who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Massachusetts political history to become the state’s U.S. senator, could not fully commit to climate denial. The now-former Senator has said he does believe climate change is occurring — but, like Romney, that it’s caused by a combination of “manmade and natural” factors.

“In his little heart of hearts, [Scott Brown] probably leaned toward denial, but he really couldn’t come out and take a hard position on that,” Cunningham said. “So I just don’t think climate denial, as an issue, exists in this state. It has no appeal.”

Even Charlie Baker, the one Republican currently vying to occupy the state’s corner office, has not refuted climate change. He came very close to doing so, though, during his failed 2010 gubernatorial bid, when he claimed he was “not smart enough” to take a position. “You’re asking me to take a position on something I don’t know enough about,” he said at the time.

“He took a big political hit for that,” Bachrach said. “Since then he’s been trying to come back to the middle. But it’s hard to come back to the middle when you’ve moved that far to the right.”

Clearly the lack of deniers seems to bring the debate to a more substantial level. But Cunningham suggests the candidates’ similarities may backfire, literally amounting to something so boring that the issue could disappear from the race altogether.

“When you have five candidates and no disagreement, the race looks elsewhere to be determined,” he said. “We’re just choosing different emphasis out of the same basic prayerbook.”

Bachrach disagrees, noting particularly the importance of “more liberated” climate candidates, especially in a race where front-runners Coakley and Grossman are likely being influenced by moneyed interests that drive their more tempered positions on climate policy.

“Massachusetts may look like one of the most progressive states for climate, but [candidates] still have to dial back if they want to get ahead,” Bachrach said. “Candidates like Don Berwick and Juliette Kayyem and Joe Avallone are essential. They’re the ones who push the front runners on some of these crucial issues, including the carbon tax.”

But perhaps because of all the similarities between the candidates, Bachrach said he wasn’t sure if his influential environmental non-profit would publicly endorse any of the Democratic candidates before the primaries.

“You never know,” he said. “Let’s just see how well they dance.”

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