This story was updated at 8:54 a.m. EDT.
Last month, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker sauntered to the podium at a forum hosted by the Environmental League of Massachusetts and ticked off a list of his administration’s environmental accomplishments.
The Republican talked about signing a pair of bills that will push the commonwealth’s acquisition of offshore wind to 3,200 megawatts — enough to power around 1.3 million homes. He talked about approving a $2.4 billion bond to fund a climate resilience program, helping steel the Bay State against rising seas. And he talked about looming environmental challenges in unsuspecting policy areas like housing, where Massachusetts faces a shortage of affordable units.
"That drives people of virtually almost every income level farther and farther away from some of those markets and the places they work," Baker said. "Which then means they have to travel much farther than they anticipated to get to where they were working."
That’s not just an affordability and economic development crisis, "but I also think about it as an enormous environmental issue," Baker added.
Such talk might be expected from a Democrat, especially in deep-blue Massachusetts. Instead it’s part of the reason Baker is a virtual shoe-in for re-election when voters head to the polls next week. The Massachusetts governor had a 45-point lead over Democratic challenger Jay Gonzalez in a recent WBUR poll. Forty-eight percent of Democratic respondents said they planned to vote for the Republican incumbent.
Baker isn’t an anomaly. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, both Republicans, are also expected to coast to second terms in states that strongly favored Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump two years ago.
The three hail from the GOP’s moderate wing and have employed a similar playbook — distancing themselves from the current occupant of the White House on issues like gun control, health care and immigration, while talking up efforts to hold down spending and taxes.
The blue-state Republicans have also charted their own course on climate.
All three have signed onto the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states committed to upholding the terms of the Paris climate accord. All three have offered support for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program encompassing the power sector in nine Northeastern states. And far from labeling climate change a hoax, all three have raised alarm about the threat of rising temperatures to residents in their states.
They also share this: criticism that they are not doing enough in the face of a mounting global crisis.
"The argument the three incumbents make is: ‘I’m not Trump, and I’m doing something.’ Fair enough, and if we had 50 years to deal with climate change, one could live with it," said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, the climate advocacy group. "But no one who read the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report last month can possibly believe they represent the kind of response to climate change we now require. Winning slowly on climate is just another way of losing."
Data collected by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication show that roughly two-thirds of voters in Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont are worried about climate change. And more than half say they think their governor should be doing more to address it.
But climate has generally been a fleeting issue across the three contests this fall. It’s outweighed by taxes, education and transportation.
Of the three states, climate has been most prominently debated in Vermont, where Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist, the former CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative, has sought to make the issue the hallmark of her campaign.
Yet her pitch has largely failed to reach its intended audience, said Richard Watts, who leads the University of Vermont’s Center for Research on Vermont. Hallquist’s campaign has failed to raise the dollars needed to fan her message across the airways, he said. Most news coverage, meanwhile, has tended to focus on the historic nature of her campaign. Hallquist is the first major-party transgender candidate in U.S. history.
"On the one hand, you have a Republican governor saying the right things. If you deconstructed what he’s actually done, it’s not quite as convincing," Watts said. "Then you have a Democrat who has made climate a signature issue but has not been able to draw sharp distinctions between herself and the incumbent on it."
Scott faces growing discontent among environmentalists in the Green Mountain State. The governor appointed a wind opponent as head of the Public Utility Commission, proposed eliminating the state’s Clean Energy Development Fund and stopped his climate change commission from discussing study of a carbon tax, said Johanna Miller, energy and climate director at the Vermont Natural Resources Council. At the same time, a recent state inventory of greenhouse gases found that Vermont’s emissions increased 10 percent between 2014 and 2015, she said.
"There has been a lot going on in terms of rhetoric and the underscoring of the reality we face in Vermont and beyond, but very little in terms of a response that does anything," said Miller, who serves on the governor’s climate change committee.
Still, she conceded that most Vermonters appear encouraged by the governor’s talk on climate.
"I don’t think it is the issue that changes the result at the polls in a week," Miller said.
Scott has defended his record, saying he remains committed to the state’s goal of meeting 90 percent of its energy needs with renewables by 2050, all while holding strong to commitments made during his initial 2016 run, when he opposed ridge-top wind development and accused his opponent of supporting a carbon tax.
Proposed wind development has left local communities sharply divided while carbon taxes would drive up costs for residents in a rural state where many have to drive long distances to get to work, said Brittney Wilson, the governor’s campaign manager.
She pointed to state investments in electric vehicle charging infrastructure and efficiency programs as areas where Scott has sought to green Vermont’s economy.
"Those are the things that he likes to do, not create more burden at the expense of more vulnerable Vermonters," Wilson said.
In Maryland, Hogan has long enjoyed a complicated relationship with climate hawks. He signed a bill committing the state to slashing emissions 40 percent of 2006 levels by 2030, but he also vetoed a bill to strengthen the state’s renewable portfolio standard. (The Legislature later overrode him.) He joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, but only after months of cajoling from environmentalists (Climatewire, Jan. 12).
That has prompted criticism from Democrats and environmentalists who say that Hogan isn’t doing enough. Ben Jealous, the governor’s Democratic challenger, has sought to capitalize on the discord and use it against the popular Hogan. Jealous, a former NAACP president, has pledged to commit the state to 100 percent clean energy and campaigned with prominent climate activists like McKibben.
His pleas have largely gone unheard in a campaign where Hogan is better funded and better known, said state Sen. Paul Pinsky (D), a Jealous supporter.
"One has a howitzer and a nuclear weapon, and the other has a slingshot," Pinsky said. "He [Jealous] has not been able to define himself. He has basically been trying to get people to know who he is."
The bigger question in Maryland is whether Hogan can pick up five seats in the state Senate, where Democrats have a supermajority. If the GOP fails, Democrats will be emboldened to pursue a 50 percent renewable portfolio standard. They may even consider a push to speed the retirement of the state’s coal fleet and open up talks over carbon pricing, Pinsky said.
That debate has already arrived in Massachusetts, where the state Senate last year unanimously passed an economywide carbon price as part of a wider energy package. The proposal never reached Baker’s desk. A compromise bill with the House contained provisions boosting offshore wind and tweaking the state’s residential solar program. But it stripped a proposal requiring the governor to impose a carbon price beginning with the transportation sector in 2020 (Climatewire, Aug. 1).
Baker has largely remained mum on the subject of carbon pricing, but some environmentalists believe he can be persuaded to support the idea.
"This governor is big on data. You manage what you measure," said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at the Massachusetts Audubon Society. "We’re going to put the data in front of him. That should convince him on what he is able to do."
Other greens are less bullish on Baker, who famously said he was "not smart enough" to know whether human beings were contributing to climate change during his first, unsuccessful run for governor in 2010. A coalition of state environmental groups has given him a C on environmental issues in each of the past three years.
Gonzalez, like his counterparts in Maryland and Vermont, has accused Baker of slow-walking a transition to a clean energy economy. It hasn’t stuck.
His challenge was on display in a debate yesterday evening. The candidates were asked whether they would support a carbon tax. Gonzalez said he supported the idea, charging, "This is one area among many where I will provide the bold leadership we need that we don’t have right now."
Baker hedged at first. He touted the laws that will boost Massachusetts’ purchase of offshore wind, noting other states were now rushing to join the business. He talked up Massachusetts’ investments in energy storage.
And when the debate moderator pressed him further on whether he was a yes or no on a carbon price, the governor offered a fully fledged endorsement for a regional cap-and-trade program for the transportation sector.
The pronouncement represents a victory for environmentalists. Massachusetts is an active participant in the Transportation and Climate Initiative, a collaboration of Northeastern states that has been exploring a cap-and-trade program for the transportation sector. Greens have long pushed Baker to fully embrace the program and address transportation emissions, which account for 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gases.
On the debate stage, the governor appeared to do just that.
"I think the way to do this one is to try to do this the same way the RGGI program works," Baker said, citing the regional cap-and-trade program for the power sector. "It’s had a huge impact on carbon emissions in power. We have been talking to the other states about putting together a regional approach in transportation."