One of the biggest political obstacles to dealing with climate change is that it can never be “solved” in the literal sense of the word.
Environmental strategy is a combination of reversing some past practices, modifying others and creating new formulas to deal with changing conditions and challenges. All must be done without jolting the economy too dramatically, if there is to be any chance of acceptance and success.
Patience is at the heart of Governor Charlie Baker’s environmental strategy. As Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides described it, this is a multi-faceted strategy that relies on partnerships between the state and its municipalities, as well as collaborative efforts between Massachusetts and most other states in the Northeast Corridor.
One of the more controversial proposals is a real estate transfer tax increase to pay for a decade-long, $1 billion program to help cities and towns prepare for and clean up after the impact of climate change.
Theoharides said the dollar impact would be relatively small – about $900 on a $400,000 home – but realtors are opposing the proposal. Those programs already in place share the common goal of putting long-range strategies in place, not an easy sell in a political climate that revolves around annual budgets, legislative terms of two years and a governor’s term of four.
The effects of quality environmental programs will not be visible so quickly. In this respect, climate change legislation has something in common with education needs that Baker wants to address over seven years, which critics say is too long.
One example of the state’s long-term environmental vision is the goal of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% compared to 1990 levels by 2050.
But Massachusetts is moving in the right direction. The staffing of providers and coordinators has been increased. This gives cities and towns, and especially smaller communities with limited staffing – many of which are found in Western Massachusetts – a helping hand to apply for grants and implement programs.
Another new strategy is the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, which was rolled out in 2017 to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat the impact of climate change.
In its first year, the program attracted 71 communities to join. Its mission includes defining extreme weather dangers, targeting vulnerabilities faced by individual communities and developing plans to reduce risk and build resilience.
Some tangible results of environmental strategies can be identified. Theoharides, who graduated from Minnechaug Regional and became the state’s chief environmental officer in May, says Springfield is saving $1.3 million per year on energy costs. She also said Massachusetts has ranked No. 1 in the nation in energy efficiency for the last eight years.
It’s no secret that one roadblock is money. A rebate program for drivers of electric vehicles is being terminated as more drivers purchase these vehicles. The program is running out of funds.
Baker has pledged one percent of his budget to energy initiatives. Theoharides says that commitment is unchanged, but even one percent is a challenge to reach, given the current economic times and demands on the budget.
The very words “climate change” represent a political hot potato, even in liberal Massachusetts, but Theoharides says a long-term strategy involves more than that.
“It’s not just climate change. It’s, ‘What do you want your communities to look like in 10 or 20 years?’ “she said.
The best environmental results won’t be achieved unless current actions are sustained well into the future. That’s a difficult political sell, but it’s also the right one.
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