SJSF Statement on Governor Patrick’s UMass Commencement Address

As young people in Massachusetts, we were proud and excited to hear Governor Patrick articulate a vision for a “future free of fossil fuels” during his commencement address at the University of Massachusetts. For too long, fossil fuels have sickened communities and threatened our generation with catastrophic climate change. The Governor has already been a strong advocate for climate and clean energy, and on Friday we were thrilled to see him answer the call of history set himself apart as a true leader.
The Governor called to shut down all coal plants in Massachusetts within the next four years and never again burn high-emission energy sources in our state. Coming on the heels of Stanford University’s divestment from coal and just ahead of President Obama’s new Clean Air Act regulations, the Governor’s words strengthened the growing tide of political and economic forces that have begun to move our society beyond coal.

We were excited to see the Governor reaffirm that climate action will result in a stronger, more resilient economy. With high hopes and expectations, we embrace the Governor’s proposal for a new Clean Energy Standard to “ensure that, at every point in time, at every moment, we are getting the cleanest energy possible.” As the Governor named, our society must strive to meet our energy needs first through the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency and then through zero-carbon renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower. SJSF looks forward to ensuring that the fossil fuel industry and its allies do not block this urgent and necessary progress as they have in the past.  This work must include strong measures to support a just transition for the communities affected by this shift.

Too few politicians address the true dangers of natural gas, so we were pleased that the Governor explicitly named the need to address the methane leaks and environmental concerns associated with both our own pipelines and plants as well as those at the extraction site. His words placed him on the cutting edge of leadership within the Democratic Party on climate action and responsible energy policy. Governor Patrick has set the bar for what a climate champion should be.

What Will Governor Patrick’s Climate Legacy Be?

by Ellen Monroe, Devyn Powell, and Austin Williams

Early on January 7th, two dozen Massachusetts residents – including students from 14 colleges and universities from across the state – prepared to meet with Rick Sullivan, the state’s Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. The purpose of the meeting: to formally present the “Governor’s Climate Legacy Platform.” Proposed by local grassroots group Better Future Project and its volunteer-led network 350 Massachusetts, the platform is a series of specific steps that Governor Deval Patrick can take to reduce the impacts of climate change and support the development of clean energy in the state. Implementing the plan would entail “banning the worst fossil fuels, building only the best electricity sources from this point forward, and beginning to price the rest of the state’s emissions” – and, as stated in the proposal we brought to the meeting, “would firmly cement the Governor’s legacy as a climate champion.”

Patrick has already demonstrated his support for clean energy and has set goals to reduce Massachusetts’ carbon emissions – for example, by signing the ambitious Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). The 2008 act challenges the state to reach a 25% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 80% by 2050. The Climate Legacy campaign, which extensively references the commitments laid out in the GWSA, is in many ways a simple extension of steps Patrick has already taken. And using the GWSA as legal context, the governor could also enact each step of the platform without getting mired in the bureaucracy of the state legislature.

Boston had been unseasonably balmy the day before, but the temperature had plummeted overnight, and our walk to the meeting was frigid. Shedding heavy coats and scarves, we filled the chairs at the conference table and lined the back of the room. “It’s very impressive that so many of you have come from so far,” Sullivan commented as he surveyed the group. “This issue is very important to us,” replied Carolyn Barthel, a 350 Massachusetts organizer who had traveled from Worcester.

Dorian Williams, who works with the grassroots organization Better Future Project as the lead organizer on the campaign, outlined the three-part platform. First, “ban the worst” – enact a moratorium on coal, fracking, and tar sands oil, and implement a just transition program to ensure that the shift to a clean energy economy doesn’t force coal plant workers and their communities to suffer. Second, “build only the best” – ensure that all major energy infrastructure investments from this point forward are directed to renewable sources and energy efficiency. And finally, “begin to price the rest” – convene a task force to design a fair carbon pricing system that holds polluters accountable while protecting low-income residents and ensuring that Massachusetts businesses remain competitive.

“To be honest, I think we’re already moving forward with a lot of these,” Sullivan immediately replied. But he expressed concerns about political barriers and measured skepticism about the ability of alternative energy sources to fill the gaps left by fossil fuels. And while he quipped that he “doesn’t set the governor’s schedule,” Sullivan did promise he would do what he could to get us a meeting with Patrick himself – one of our primary goals for the morning.

As the meeting ended, a feeling of relief fell across the group. Some questions remained – while it is necessary for the climate, is it politically feasible to keep natural gas out of a framework for midcentury reduction targets? But we left hopeful that Sullivan’s willingness to listen and engage will coalesce into serious leadership on the part of the governor’s administration.

Largely because of Governor Patrick’s efforts, Massachusetts has become a national leader in environmental policy, but a number of obstacles still stand in in the way of meeting the GWSA’s emissions goals. Some of those obstacles are more concrete than others – like the proposed new natural gas plant in Salem, slated to replace the soon-to-be-retired Salem Harbor coal plant. Instead of developing more fossil fuel infrastructure – an expensive choice for taxpayers and a serious setback for the GWSA – Patrick should prioritize investing in cleaner, more efficient alternatives. As he said to an audience of Democratic party leaders in Missouri last spring, “We owe a generational responsibility to leave things better for those who come behind us” – and if the governor continues to invest in fossil fuels, he is not fulfilling that responsibility.

350 Massachusetts next hopes to meet with the governor himself to discuss how we can help him overcome the barriers that hold him back from implementing the Climate Legacy platform. We hope to make clear that even our deep-blue state’s relatively progressive policies are not yet enough to prevent the fossil fuel industry’s ongoing destruction of the environment and communities, nor to overcome the tremendous threat of climate change.

As Governor Patrick himself said in his Earth Day speech at MIT last spring, “Sitting still and waiting for the future to happen to us is not a formula for leadership or success.” With less than a year left in office, this is Patrick’s chance to cement his legacy as the kind of ambitious, forward-thinking leader he both wants and needs to be.