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?
“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.