Columnist Solomon Goldstein-Rose: A significant impact on climate change

Friday, November 24, 2017

A few weeks ago, the Massachusetts House passed a bill committing Massachusetts to the goals of the Paris climate agreement. As environmental organizations noted, this bill is symbolic, as the Paris goals are less ambitious than Massachusetts’ existing emissions reductions requirements.

What no one mentioned was this: Even if Massachusetts were to meet our goals tomorrow, it would have no noticeable effect on global emissions. In fact, even if the whole world met the Paris goals, it is unclear whether we would avert catastrophic tipping points, and we certainly wouldn’t avert devastating floods, storms, droughts and disease.

Lots of folks have recently called my office advocating for increasing the renewable energy portfolio standard or passing the 100 percent renewables bill. I’m glad we have so many activists looking for solutions.

But we must shift the conversation — reducing our own emissions should not be our focus. Massachusetts’ contribution to solving climate change lies elsewhere.

Given the fact that a disproportionate number of the activists and leaders who will be promoting local, state, and federal climate policies live in our community, I offer some perspective on what might really have an impact.

First, local actions, policies, projects, and initiatives will be insignificant unless they model a genuinely new approach to some problem in a way that other municipalities — not only a few — can imitate.

Second, state policies that model approaches that we can prove as viable will be useful. The most significant of these is carbon pricing, which no state has yet adopted. The direct global emissions impact of Massachusetts instituting a carbon price would be negligible. But if we are the first to do this, many states will follow, and by the time we have a decent Congress or new president, the policy will be proven as politically and economically viable.

Third, the core focus for Massachusetts policies must be creating new clean-energy technologies and scaling up the industries to commercialize them. Carbon pricing will take a long time to make new technologies necessary. Direct procurement, such as the requirement for 1.6 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity which the Legislature passed last year, is more helpful in jump-starting new industries.

Investments in infrastructure for proving new technologies is also helpful. That’s why I’m putting effort into a battery-testing center.

Fourth, when advocating at the federal level, consider the advantages of nuclear. I know many who lived through the Cold War find the very word “nuclear” scary, but I hope you’ll take an open-minded look at existing and emerging technologies. If global fatalities from nuclear were a bar graph the thickness of a penny, those from coal would be a five-story building. In fact, fewer people die per unit of energy produced by nuclear than by solar.

Even if you’re not ready to get behind existing nuclear plants, there are exciting new technologies that eliminate the fears that folks hold — such as molten salt reactors, which are walk-away safe and some of which may be able to use the slightly depleted fuel we currently call “waste,” thereby disposing of 90-plus percent of it.

The big advantages of nuclear are that it works well with existing infrastructure, and that it’s bipartisan. In fact, it’s the one clean energy source that has more support among Republicans than Democrats, so it might be one of the only chances to accomplish something big on energy with the current Congress.

Fifth, at the state and federal level, when you advocate on climate change, don’t talk about climate change. If you must name it, speak of it as an economic issue (the greatest threat to the coastal Boston economy), or as a public health issue. But mostly, talk about solutions: clean energy technologies, which will create jobs; or carbon pricing, which will keep money in-state.

Talk about the fact that with Massachusetts at the end of the supply chain for energy (all fossil fuels come from outside New England), we’ll always have the highest energy costs in the country. However, if we transition to energy we can source locally, and especially if we make ourselves the center for new industries, we will have cheaper energy as well as more local jobs, patents and companies.

For those of you who want to make a difference on climate change, keeping things in perspective is key. If you are unified and focused, and direct your efforts toward what is most significant, you can have a true impact in solving this global problem.

Solomon Goldstein-Rose, of Amherst, is the Democratic state representative from the 3rd Hampshire District.