Tuesday night was a tough night for progressives of all stripes and climate activists in particular. From Mitch McConnell’s win in coal country, to the victory of Dan “the-jury’s-out-on-climate” Sullivan in Alaska, it’s hard to look at the election results and feel optimistic about our chances of addressing the climate crisis any time soon. Indeed, one can already anticipate countless more attacks on the EPA, more riders trying to attach approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline to important pieces of legislation, and more maddening statements from public officials denying the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.
At first glance, the election results from Massachusetts seem just as grim as the national picture. An effort to index the gas tax to inflation was narrowly defeated by voters, a recycling measure was thoroughly trounced, and Massachusetts elected another Republican over Martha Coakley. But the actual dynamics of the Massachusetts governor’s race suggest a potential bright spot. Charlie Baker, the state’s new governor, told voters just four years ago that he wasn’t sure if humans were responsible for climate change. This year, he called climate change a “real threat” and said that clean energy would be a priority for his administration. He promised to expand efficiency programs, offer incentives for emissions reductions, support local climate adaptation plans and increase spending on the environment to 1% of the state’s budget. Indeed, when Baker spoke at a gubernatorial forum sponsored by environmental groups, the host noted that he had never seen so much alignment on this issue among gubernatorial candidates.
This four-year shift is no accident; Baker is a skilled politician, and he is responding to the electorate. A majority of Massachusetts voters think that the government should take action to address climate change. Over the past few years (thanks in part to the work of Better Future Project/350 Massachusetts), the Commonwealth has become a hub for the country’s growing grassroots climate movement, home to countless climate meetings, forums, protests, demonstrations, and vigils. Ten cities and dozens of faith communities in Massachusetts have passed resolutions or taken direct action in favor of fossil fuel divestment, more than in any other state, and hundreds of Massachusetts residents have risked arrest at demonstrations calling for the shutdown of coal plants and a halt to the construction of Keystone XL. Thanks to strong local and statewide organizing by the Coal Free Mass Coalition (among others), there will be no coal burned in Massachusetts after 2017, and proposed new natural gas plants and pipelines are facing historic levels of opposition. (Indeed, with all of this public support and pushing, the current Governor, Deval Patrick, even went so far as to call for a “future free of fossil fuels,” language the state government has started taking to heart in its planning.)
Of course, Baker’s leftward tack on climate still isn’t good enough — not even close. Baker continues to sing the praises of polluting natural gas, and he has not come out clearly in opposition to the proposed Kinder Morgan pipeline or other new natural gas projects. Despite his pledges to promote clean energy, his policy proposals have been vague at best, without almost nothing in the way of concrete specifics. Recognizing that climate change is a “real threat” is still a long way from calling it an existential threat. Saying that clean energy will be a priority is not the same as pledging to quintuple this growing sector of our economy, which is already responsible for close to 90,000 Massachusetts jobs.
Now that he is elected, Baker has a chance to reveal his true colors: he can put the people of the Commonwealth first, and start to lead the Republican party out of the climate wilderness — or he can prioritize the interests of oil and gas lobbyists, push more natural gas into the state, and ignore the urgency and opportunity of the climate crisis.
Either way, the Massachusetts climate movement, stronger and more energized than ever, will be watching. If Baker chooses to lead, we’ll be cheering him every step of the way — and if he falls short, we’ll be ready to take to the streets to demand the bold action that Massachusetts needs.