Someone’s gotta say it: They failed again.
There’s a new report out that shows that air pollution is about twice as deadly as previously known. It makes it plain that cutting fossil fuel emissions is plainly more humane and far cheaper in cost to the public. To paraphrase what famed climatologist Michael Mann told Congress last year, pollution and climate change are pain and nothing else: Air pollution kills in even more prodigious numbers than we thought. And even in the coldest sense, if we put a numerical dollar value on those lives lost and the medical attention necessary, renewables would come out far far cheaper than any fossil fuel. Less death; less suffering; more money; more jobs — especially in those “environmental justice” areas, now hardest-hit by pollution (and COVID). And we can do it right now, with existing technologies.
This makes all the more poignant the failure of the Massachusetts House to pass a strong and timely renewable energy mandate — one that gets us to 100% renewable electricity by 2035 and all energy by 2045. It’s painful to watch the contortions of environmental groups, simultaneously taking credit for and disavowing the weak-sauce “Roadmap” bill that was allowed to emerge from the MA House.
The Hampshire Gazette ran a very concise column on the difference between the two approaches, by Johanna Neumann of Environment America:
Under a “net zero by 2050” scheme, fossil fuel-fired power plants, like the Mystic Generating Station in Everett, Massachusetts, could keep operating for the foreseeable future. Carbon accounting is tricky business, subject to manipulation. Fancy accounting schemes could open the door for communities that live near fossil fuel infrastructure to continue to suffer disproportionate health risks indefinitely.
The Massachusetts House, led by Telecom Utilities and Energy chair Tom “Tipa” Golden, tossed aside the most humane and the most economically viable course of action, which is to move to renewable energy as fast as practicable. That’s even as the majority of the House was on record supporting the 100% renewables bill/amendment. They did pass the very significant Madaro environmental justice amendment — a genuine and hard-fought victory. But just as cutting emissions and climate adaptation make no sense without a sense of equity, environmental justice is utterly empty without cutting emissions. And somehow [waves hands in air wildly] our “progressive” reps and our enviro groups snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, in failing to steer Golden and Speaker DeLeo away from fossil fuel interests.
Given the demonstrable popularity of renewable energy and climate action even in the building, it’s apparent that climate advocacy groups are punching well below their weight. So maybe it’s time for the 50,000* environmental groups in Massachusetts to think about whether they are using their power most effectively. Why do we need so many environmental groups in Massachusetts? Wouldn’t we do better to consolidate a number of these groups — even while retaining talented staff and building organizational capacity? Would it not help with message coordination, and projecting the appearance and substance of power? Think about effective advocacy groups — those that seem to prevail, even when their positions are unpopular. There is only one NRA; is there any reason why we shouldn’t have an NRA for the climate (minus the corruption and Russian influence?)
[* a made-up number that feels right, give or take a power of 10]
For example, witness this rueful post-mortem on the House’s vote in Commonwealth, written by advocates of four (4!) climate/environmental groups who are members of the Mass Power Forward coalition, “a coalition of over 200 environmental leaders, community development organizations, clean energy businesses, faith groups, neighborhood health and safety advocates and Massachusetts families fighting for our future.” Why did it take four people to write this — representing, I suppose, 2% of the 200 groups? To invert the old JFK saw: Failure has a thousand parents; victory is apparently an orphan that no one wants to adopt.
Even if you had a group with a highly distributed, horizontal organizational structure – a group of groups, with a wide variety of projects, and a fairly high degree of internal autonomy: Would that not be more effective than the current chaotic and redundant constellation of groups, each with their own email lists, donor lists (which group did we give to last year again??), distracted volunteers, strategies and tactics, talking points, comms specialists, lobbyists if they’re lucky, legal teams, office staff, expensive Beacon Hill rents … Mass. Power Forward was intended to coordinate efforts, but the effort still seemed chaotic.
All of this redundancy and confusion serves to dissipate the power of the environmental movement. When you have a small group with a handful of volunteers you will not be perceived as powerful by people in charge. If you have a large group; with an active and frankly intimidating membership; which is able to coherently leverage public pressure, public attention, and public outrage; we would start to see better results. How could that not be the case?
Why, for instance, do we send out emails to our lists begging to call before 11am TODAY in favor of Amendment 1xx, replacing language xyz with pdq … That’s nuts, and we all know it. It’s a game that’s designed for us to lose; by the time “debate” on amendments rolls around, it’s probably too late.
But maybe we don’t have to play it that way? Maybe we just demand results from the get-go, and say you’re on notice; make it happen; and maybe you don’t even have to say or else. You have to demonstrate the political juice that pre-empts the kind of mischief that Golden and DeLeo engaged in here. It has to be unthinkable to them to cross you.
But we put ourselves in that position out of fear. Advocates are afraid of losing access and influence in the State House. But I’d suggest there is enough size and energy in the climate movement right now that we can demand our agenda. We don’t need to play the typical state house game where we can never make anybody look bad because we might lose the relationship with the person in the room where it happens. What about our state rep’s relationship to us? Do they not bear a responsibility to tend to that? Do we have to beg?
I’m just going to ask a dumb question: Have enviro groups cultivated a sizable group of volunteers in Golden’s and DeLeo’s districts (et al.), to provide local sources of information, pressure, and accountability? Or are they afraid to do so? Do they lack the contacts and capacity and relational neighborhood connections? One activist, Max Dunitz — an MIT grad who lives in France — started a successful signature campaign in Winthrop to instruct Bob DeLeo to act on climate. Do we not have climate activists in Lowell and Winthrop, e.g.? Are they unified or fragmented? Do they seem representative of their communities? Are they made to feel important, empowered, and given the tools to succeed? What’s missing? Why are we confused by this result?
This movement is strong enough, popular enough, large enough, that we can make credible threats via primary challenges. We don’t need to play the insider game exclusively. We certainly have enough power to credibly support incumbents who take a perceived risk in supporting our legislation, to make it worth their while; and we can certainly make things uncomfortable for those who don’t. (That discomfort is motivating; I’m seeing that in a couple of challenged State Rep races right now, where the incumbents have upped their game.) In Getting to Yes talk, we have tried very hard to find the Zone of Possible Agreement (ZOPA); but the other tactic is to degrade your negotiating partner’s Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA) — in other words, to make it difficult to say no to you. We need to employ both the inside and the outside games; carrots and sticks.
The hour is later than late. Desperate times require bolder strategies. Like any relationship, if it’s not working, we need to say so; and we need to be prepared to walk out if it comes to that. We need to demand, not beg. It’s time for the Massachusetts environmental scene to consolidate, and bring credible power from outside the building; not to baby the egos of representatives, but to demand the most basic protections of human life that the public deserves.