Gov. Baker essentially pushed out his undersecretary for Climate Affairs, David Ismay, over some comments he made to a group of Vermont community leaders working on climate change. In talking about the inherent difficulties in changing behaviors to reduce emissions, Ismay used some inartful phrasing:
A video clip of the Vermont event, posted by the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, shows Ismay saying that 60% of the state’s emissions come from residential heating and passenger vehicles, or “you, the person [inaudible] the street, the senior on fixed income.”
“There is no bad guy left, at least in Massachusetts, to point the finger at, turn the screws on, and break their will so they stop emitting,” he said in the video. “That’s you, we have to break your will, right. I can’t even say that publicly.”
This was seized upon by the Mass. Fiscal Alliance, a right-wing, Koch-based dark-money group that nonetheless holds very little sway in Massachusetts at all. As far as I can tell, they send out press releases, ask for money, are of a piece with the increasingly worm-brained, Trumpist MassGOP … and they get picked up by the also-inconsequential Boston Herald. Who cares?
So, why does Charlie Baker care so much as to throw Ismay under the bus? Does this experienced public servant really need to be shoved out the door without so much as a word of thanks for his years of service? Is what Ismay said really that wrong? Is it just the raw language borne of frustration, the difficulty of the challenge?
Craig Altemose of the Better Future Project had a balanced take:
“The misinterpreted point he was — albeit clumsily — trying to make, contained parts that I agree with (a lot of our remaining emissions come from consumers) and disagree with (to address those emissions we need to directly change consumer behavior as a primary lever),” Altemose said in an email. “But it is unquestionable that Ismay joined the Baker administration out of a sincere desire to really dive down and figure out how to get Massachusetts off of fossil fuels, and he was a big part of laying out the state’s detailed 2030 clean energy and climate plan. Ismay’s reluctant resignation points to Baker seeming to care more about the optics of addressing climate change than actually addressing it and his removal will ultimately make the Baker administration less effective in tackling the climate crisis.”
I understand that climate politics is a tricky balancing act: On one hand we have to create incentives for people to save money and enjoy better health and convenience, by driving down their emissions. By no means should lowering emissions be all pain – in the aggregate, just the opposite! With the right policies and incentives in place, it should save money and be more convenient and healthy. That should be the pervasive message.
And regardless, we can stipulate that the Governor is entitled to have members of his administration stay on message and reflect his themes. For all that I complain about Baker not being ambitious enough, he’s trying to thread the needle on things like the Transportation Initiative and Climate Program, which does raise gas taxes and is therefore a tough sell in some places. I can imagine he doesn’t need this distraction.
That being said … friends, let’s be adults. Let’s have a sense of proportion and judgment. We are indeed talking about behavioral change here, on a mass scale, to avoid the worst catastrophe in human history. People have their lives set up in a particular way: Sometimes in ways we can change; sometimes in ways we can’t; and sometimes we just don’t wanna. But we should wanna. I don’t think that’s “breaking our will” as much as it is finding or building our will. That means switching to electric vehicles where necessary — with help from the government in terms of charging stations and tax credits. Or dispensing with driving as much as possible — with the availability of convenient public transit and bike paths as an option. Or switching to renewable electricity: Home solar, community solar, or Community Choice via your municipality. Or weatherizing your home. Reduce/re-use/recycle. Etc.
Yes, fighting climate change does involve public awareness and the aggregation of individual lifestyle choices. We should indeed examine our own! Public and private actions are mutually-reinforcing; we need a culture of climate care.
One more thing: Is someone with the experience and qualifications of Ismay really that dispensable? Is there no loss of institutional memory, expertise, and unique talent? Is he simply the sum of his worst moments? I find that incredibly hard to believe.
In most cases, I really doubt the efficacy or necessity of firing people – even people with whom I disagree. Per the parable of the Prodigal Son, I’d vastly prefer a genuine apology and repentance. People don’t just go away and disappear; but their attitudes can change. Of course there are situations where someone’s words pose a genuine and immediate danger: Racial or sexual harassment; threats of violence; and the like.
But this — a random off-message moment? Meh. Have him apologize, and get back to work – both Baker and Ismay.
I mostly agree with this — certainly Mr. Baker is demonstrating an abysmal and suicidal refusal to admit reality.
Having said that, I fear we delude ourselves with articles of faith like this:
My read of the science is that it’s too late for this — MUCH too late.
The US did not want to enter WWII until December 7, 1941. In spite of all kinds of diplomatic, balanced, and persuasive messaging, Americans wanted no part of a war in Europe. Too many Americans thought that Adolph Hitler’s Germany was a preferable partner to Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Once the Day of Infamy happened, Americans united to win WWII because there was near-universal agreement that any other stance had unacceptable consequences for every American.
Climate change is a MUCH more threatening adversary than either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. Our climate change Day of Infamy has already happened — several times (cf the extreme “weather” events of 2019 and 2020) — and we are not paying attention.
I fear that this perspective, while surely a preferable political posture, is in fact another form of unintentional climate denial.
We have ALREADY passed the threshold where impacts like sea level rise, extreme weather events, and widespread floods, famines, and fires are inevitable. We don’t have time for “right policies and incentives” to be invented, then put in place, and then — after years — start to show positive effects.
The US had to mobilize to fight WWII. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t easy, and America did it anyway because America recognized that it HAD to. By January of 1942, nobody was proposing upbeat messages like “save money” or “more convenient and healthy”.
I think we need to be talking about draconian prevention measures in order to have any hope of avoiding absolute and unsurvivable catastrophe as well as extreme mitigation measures — such as relocating critical infrastructure, condemning residential and commercial property threatened by sea level rise, and so on — in order to manage the impact of what we’ve already done.
Pandora’s box is already open. The Genie is already among us.
I think we must start telling ourselves the truth about climate change. I think the pervasive message must reflect reality — surely we learned that the hard way from the pandemic.
I’ll respectfully disagree and look at the market which is shifting on its own against fossil fuels, especially coal, and toward solar and wind. Even GM which infamously killed the electric car in 1996 is now on board, with even a jingoistic super bowl ad to boot. We should be beating Norway!
Just this morning I read an article on the challenges of making cheaper and more efficient batteries. China is cleaning our clock on that (and could very well be the Saudi Arabia of electric) but the Biden administration recognizes that we can take proactive investments in those companies that produce batteries here. Major automakers are switching to electric only commitments and so is the new administration.
Meanwhile on the generator front wind and solar will soon eclipse gas. My father in law and brother solarized and someone on my block gets panels and the next week their neighbor did too. This was a 50/50 block in 2016 and my other neighbor is a Trump supporter, but I see the tide shifting.
My students love Tesla and Elon Musk and want to be the engineers and entrepreneurs driving the transition from carbon, this is a huge opportunity to create good paying jobs in the states and finally tell the Saudis to screw. We should frame it that way, not as scolds lecturing working people who lack the nearly seven figures now needed to buy a house along the T about how their habits need to change. Let’s upzone and solve the housing crisis and build high speed rail right here in America. This is a crisis, but its also an opportunity. We don’t need to become carbon Amish, we just need to build better and more innovative technology. That’s the kind of thing that creates jobs and progresses humanity.
I didn’t intend to create a false dichotomy, and of course I celebrate all those things.
What I mean is that we have to stop pretending that people can continue to drive to and from work every day — even in electric vehicles. Until we get clean electricity, those electric vehicles are still harmful.
Yes, of course I support market incentives and clean energy investments. I’m saying that some of the needed changes will be painful. At the national level, the Governor of West Virginia now admits that America and the world needs to stop using coal — just “not now”. He wants a “graceful” and “gradual” transition — I’m saying that we can’t afford to wait another ten years to close down those mines.
The MBTA is still BUYING diesel locomotives. Plans to electrify commuter rail are still in the contemplation stage. New buildings and infrastructure are still under way in Fort Point — we KNOW that’s going to be under water in ten years.
I’m not talking about “lecturing working people who lack the nearly seven figures now needed to buy a house along the T”, I’m instead talking about telling the ultrawealthy who own ginormous waterfront mansions on our barrier islands and vulnerable shorelines that they’re going to have to give up those properties — it’s time to stop pretending that some seawall is going to do anything except waste precious money and time.
I’m talking about the breaches that cut the barrier protecting Chatham harbor in 2007 and again two weeks ago. Sea level rise is already trashing geological studies like those done for Chatham as recently as 2019 (https://www.southcoasttoday.com/news/20190726/geological-report-troubling-trends-ahead-in-chatham). The impact on Chatham is here and now. The sea level increase is already happening and happening faster than predicted a few short years ago.
To the extent that we are able to compare actual data with predicted results from earlier climate models, we are learning that predictions understated the impacts. The actual data is still within error bounds of the models, but it is nearly all on the high side of those predictions. The Arctic is warming MUCH faster than anticipated. Melting in Greenland is MUCH stronger than expected. Last year, Verkhoyansk, Russia — north of the Arctic circle — recorded a temperature of 100.4 deg F!
The climate predictions that were already too harsh for our political process to accept were too conservative. Climate change is happening sooner and stronger than our climate models predicted.
Absolutely which is why we need a visionary leader to take us to the transition and not someone slow waking progress couched in green rhetoric like Baker. I recall Joe Kennedy’s speech at Diman Tech where he envisioned a new energy economy. He made a mistake in trying to out climate hawk Markey, but he can redeem himself by removing Baker and hitting the gas instead of the breaks on a post gas future.
Ismay is correct. We can’t solve this by pointing fingers the bad guys alone. I’d go one step further to add that we need to stop pointing fingers at the bad guys (stick) and start pointing fingers at the good guys (carrot).
We need leadership that celebrates every time a citizen of community takes action to lower our collective carbon footprint.
We need a media that does the same. Instead of celebrating the custom-built,12,000-square-foot estate of Tom & Gisele, let’s see stories in the Real Estate section of the area’s most energy efficient homes.
We need to make climate action fashionable.
I’m with John and Tom. By no means do I want to sugercoat the crisis. This is the most serious national security threat to our way of life, something that would make the last 12 months of disruption look like child’s play. It’s also a golden opportunity to decouple ourselves from the Middle East once and for all and beat China before they beat us and become the new energy superpower. Their leadership is wise enough to recognize they need to be the global
leader in the new post-carbon energy economy, ours has to as well.
That’s one way to get independents and working class people on board. If any country can innovate their way out of the climate crisis, it is this one. It’s a golden opportunity to create good paying jobs, create new American companies, and ensure our national security for another century. This is exactly the kind of nationalism I can get behind. Beating China at electric and telling MBS to screw.
I want to highlight what this means in practice in order to help us all understand why it requires such a fundamental change in our approach. This is something I know a little bit about because of my history in the field (I ran the engineering team at a tiny solar thermal company about ten years ago for a few years).
In order to beat China at anything, including electronics, we have to stop being squeamish and persnickety about things like government subsidies to private companies.
The Chinese beat the bejesus out of the entire world, including a motivated and energized Germany, in manufacturing the basic technology used in PV solar panels. I’m talking about the semiconductors here.
China did that by, among other things, unashamedly subsidizing losses of Chinese manufacturers and directing enormous sums into “private” R&D. That was accompanied by aggressive cyber warfare to acquire confidential and proprietary data and science from competitors. China has never been willing to observe the boundaries that govern western nations in trade and manufacturing.
This extends far beyond simple direct subsidies to manufacturers. During this period, China made aggressive and enormously successful marketing drives in south and central America. While the US was trying to win our “war on drugs” with punitive measures and by supporting unsavory players at every level, China was offering free Chinese language instruction, low- or zero-cost loans to entrepreneurs who wanted to use and sell Chinese energy products, and similar incentives.
It should not be surprising that China is now the dominant supplier of this vital technology.
Ten years ago, the failure of a Massachusetts supplier (Evergreen Solar – https://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/15/business/energy-environment/15solar.html) was treated as a “scandal” and as an example of “failed” government policy. Republican critics derided the various federal and state subsidies as “socialism” and cited the failure as evidence of “liberal” overreach.
That stands in stark contrast to the role of the Chinese government in the Chinese suppliers that destroyed Evergreen Solar (and the rest of the world’s solar technology suppliers).
China is willing to play mean and dirty — they have a long history of doing whatever is necessary to succeed when they target a particular industry for Chinese domination.
I’m reminded of the shocking (to insiders) realization a few decades ago that not only could NONE of our super-duper super-advanced military machines (jets, warships, etc) be built without offshore components supplied by potentially hostile nations (at the time, Japan and China were mentioned), but by that time America even lacked the engineering expertise needed to design and manufacture those components. I’m talking about integrated circuits and similar low-level electronic components. So far as I can tell, the situation has gotten worse rather than better.
I remember many of colleagues telling me around the turn of the century that the US aeronautics industry could not design, test, and manufacture the aircraft that were in daily operation at the time. Virtually all of those components have long since been outsourced to foreign suppliers who could turn off our supplies at their convenience.
I agree with the sentiment you express. I want to be sure we all appreciate just how radical a transformation that will require in our own attitudes, behaviors, and policies.
Too many Americans do not realize that we’ve been living in a bubble of prosperity that is utterly and completely dependent upon the alliances, trade networks, and fundamental goodwill that America built and maintained in the aftermath of WWII.
Our red-feathered friends, and even some of our leftist colleagues, talk loudly and proudly of “America first” while having absolutely NO CLUE about how dangerous at least some of their proposals are.
How many people appreciate what it means that the US dollar is the international currency of choice? How many people appreciate the English (American-style English) is the international language of choice, especially for contracts and international agreements?
One of the reasons I like Joe Biden is that I think he has a better grasp on all this than most of his peers and colleagues.
I’m not sure that “beating” China is the best way forward. I wonder if we might creatively find other ways to acquire the green energy we so desperately need.
Which is why Musk made his cars sexier than a Prius and able to beat a Porsche in a drag race. Climate activists who are militantly anti-car are shooting themselves in the foot. We need to make better cleaner cars using smaller and cleaner power plant footprints. This is a chance to build new stuff and better stuff. Not to act like luddites and reverse engineer our car culture. Just acclimate it progress on climate. Make it sexy.
Is having to change a few behaviors to help the climate really that controversial?
We’re going to have to do a lot more than change a few behaviors.
I’ll admit, I am a car guy. I’d love to have a big V-12 Lamborghini Aventador, or at least I used to, not so much anymore. SUV’s keep getting bigger. Our car culture is going to take a lot of time to change. It’s going to be controversial, sure. Try convincing the suburban soccer moms that they are safe in a Prius (they are) and tell their husbands that they really do not have use for a 600 HP four wheel drive pickup truck (they don’t). It’s all an image that was directed at us by the car companies.
I’ve changed, for sure. I drive a Prius Prime. I just went two months without buying gas, over 1,000 miles and I still had half a tank.
But try to tell people that it’s great in the snow and safe, and they don’t believe me because of marketing.
As Mr. Conway pointed out, things are changing. Take a look at GM. I wish them luck. However, take a a look at Ford’s decision last year to stop making cars, aside from the Mustang, and only make SUV’s and trucks….
Steve Consilvio says
There seems to be universal agreement that Baker shot the messenger, and caved to Mass Fiscal Alliance which is nothing more than a shill who will use Baker’s action to justify their ‘effectiveness’ in future fundraising. A pretty sad situation.