America’s strongest climate governor might be a Republican

By Benjamin Storrow | 02/22/2019 06:56 AM EST

During his first run for Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker questioned climate science. Now he’s leading the nation.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has taken steps to address climate change.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has taken steps to address climate change. Josephine Pettigrew, Office of the Governor/Flickr

During his first run for governor, Charlie Baker sat for a meeting with a group of leading environmentalists in Massachusetts. It quickly turned combative.

Baker, a Republican who was challenging Gov. Deval Patrick (D), voiced doubts about the veracity of climate science and the high cost of renewable energy. He singled out Cape Wind as an overpriced offshore wind project proposed for Nantucket Sound. The project died years later, in 2017.

Recounting the meeting to The Boston Globe, the environmental leaders recalled Baker using a whiteboard to lecture them about the shortcomings of their position. The greens were shocked. Baker, a former state budget official, municipal leader and health care executive, had a reputation as a technocrat. They assumed he accepted the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate.


He did not.

"I’m not saying I believe in it. I’m not saying I don’t," Baker told the Globe in 2010. "You’re asking me to take a position on something I don’t know enough about. I absolutely am not smart enough to believe that I know the answer to that question."

He lost the race.

Nearly a decade later, Baker is a two-term governor, fresh off a landslide re-election victory in November that saw him commandeer roughly two-thirds of the vote in one of America’s most liberal states. The result was not a surprise. Baker’s approval ratings throughout his first term made him the most popular governor in the country.

More surprising is the list of climate victories Baker notched during his first four years. He can now reasonably claim to have accomplished more on climate than any other governor in office today — including Democrats.

His support for an offshore wind bill in 2016 helped launch the industry in North America, and made Massachusetts the first state to wade into the shallow waters of the North Atlantic in search of large quantities of renewable electricity (Climatewire, June 19, 2017).

After a series of climate-induced weather events battered the Bay State, Baker launched a series of efforts to raise funding for local resilience and adaptation initiatives (Climatewire, March 16, 2018). Other states are now pondering whether to follow suit.

Now, Baker is poised for perhaps his most ambitious and consequential push of all: a bid to curb transportation emissions, the largest source of greenhouse gases nationally and one of the most difficult to cut.

The man who once questioned climate science sounds different on the stump today. Last fall, speaking to environmentalists at a forum in Boston, Baker argued that the push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions was inextricably linked to efforts to bolster the meager stock of affordable housing around the Massachusetts’ capital (Climatewire, Nov. 2, 2018).

The governor has begun taking steps onto the national stage. He accepted Democrats’ invitation to testify about the dangers of climate change before the House Natural Resources Committee earlier this month.

Climate change, he told the committee, is "not a partisan issue" in Massachusetts.

"While we sometimes disagree on specific policies, we understand the science and know the impacts are real because we’re experiencing them firsthand," Baker said.

State Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democrat and leading climate hawk in the Massachusetts Legislature, said Baker’s evolution is so substantial that it’s "like you’re talking about a totally different person."

He credited climate activists and state lawmakers for pressuring Baker to address the issue. "To give credit to the governor, he has welcomed science," Pacheco said. "He’s looked at the science, the data that has come across his desk, he has seen the evidence of how renewables can over the long term be a cost-saver and public health improver."

Unlike Trump

Baker is firmly in the minority in President Trump’s Republican Party, where resistance to climate policy is a GOP staple. But the Massachusetts governor has an opportunity to make in-roads with his counterparts in other states, who may be more open to listening to one of their own, said state Rep. Maria Robinson, a Democrat and former policy analyst at Advanced Energy Economy, a clean energy trade group.

"I think it’s hugely important to have an Republican voice," she said. "The struggle is each state believes its circumstances to be completely unique. If he can move someone like a [Republican Florida] Gov. Ron DeSantis, even just a little bit, to implement more solar in Florida, that’s an incredible win."

The question is how far Baker intends to push the climate envelope. The governor has remained mum on proposals to institute a carbon price, and critics contend that his administration has been slow to wean the Bay State from natural gas.

Baker begins his second term at a time when America finds itself short of climate leaders. Trump spent his first two years in office dismantling environmental regulations and denying climate science. Congressional climate hawks have a public platform to champion a "Green New Deal," but not the votes to enact it.

And there is a void at the state level following the retirement of Jerry Brown, the former California governor who championed climate action over four terms as a Democrat. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, both Democrats, have positioned themselves to assume the climate mantle, helping to establish the U.S. Climate Alliance and making the issue a focus of their administrations. But both have struggled to notch legislative victories (Climatewire, May 29, 2018).

That may change this year. Cuomo and Inslee now have firm Democratic majorities to work with after last fall’s midterms. Combined with a new crop of Democratic governors, the prospects for major state climate action are better than in previous years (Climatewire, Feb. 12).

But greens are increasingly looking to Baker for leadership. They’re hopeful he is ready to step into a role once played by George Pataki, the former New York Republican governor who spearheaded efforts to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program covering the power sector in nine Northeastern states.

Baker has embraced RGGI as a model for how to deal with transportation emissions. He has emerged as a vocal cheerleader of the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a group of nine states and the District of Columbia focused on developing a cap-and-trade program for cars and trucks (Climatewire, Dec. 19, 2018). The group is expected to finalize a program within a year.

Speaking to reporters following his congressional testimony, Baker talked up the virtues of applying the RGGI model to other sectors of the economy.

"As our economy has continued to grow, our energy draw is remaining the same, relatively flat, and our greenhouse gas emissions have gone down," Baker said. "I do think these are better done on a regional basis than on a state-to-state basis, because regions can work collaboratively, whether you’re talking about electricity generation, energy generation or transportation."

Baker’s test

The governor’s push on transportation is notable on several fronts. Unlike the power sector, transportation emissions have steadily risen in recent years (Climatewire, April 17, 2018).

Massachusetts is on track to cut emissions 25 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, but it has little hope of meeting a targeted 80 percent reduction by midcentury if it does not tackle emissions from transportation.

"I think he has set himself up to be seen as a leader on climate, but there is a lot more to do, particularly in the TCI context," said Jordan Stutt, carbon programs manager at the Acadia Center, an environmental group focused on the Northeast. "Setting up the framework, moving the conversation forward is really important. He and his administration deserve credit for that. But ultimately he will be judged on whether he establishes a program that reduces emissions. That is where this next year will be so important."

Baker is not without his critics. He has done little to reduce the state’s overwhelming reliance on natural gas, and his past appointments to the state’s utility commission have been hostile to residential solar, said Deb Pasternak, who leads the Sierra Club’s Massachusetts chapter.

The governor might be a leader by today’s political standards, "but in terms of delivering a livable planet, he needs to step up," she said.

In some respects, Baker’s hand on climate has been forced. Massachusetts is unique among states in that it has a law calling for deep emissions reductions and a directive from the state’s highest court to fulfill those requirements.

The Conservation Law Foundation sued the Patrick administration for failing to uphold the terms of the law. Baker initially fought the lawsuit when he took over the governorship.

But once the state Supreme Judicial Court found in the foundation’s favor, his administration quickly set about developing a plan to cut emissions, said Brad Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation.

"I do think he is becoming an important climate leader," Campbell said. "He has grown into that role over the course of the last four years. He is someone who believes in fact and scientific-based decisionmaking. And I think more than anything else, the increasing urgency, particularly the threat to a coastal state like Massachusetts, has persuaded him that action is needed."

A series of winter storms in 2015, a severe drought in 2016 and several extreme weather events in the years since then have influenced the governor’s thinking about the risks of a changing climate, said Matt Beaton, Massachusetts’ secretary of energy and environmental affairs.

The response of private industry has also been important. Baker took note of the fact the insurance and financial industries were incorporating climate risks, Beaton said. Today, the governor frequently mentions the climatic changes observed by fishermen and farmers.

"It seems like the guy has put himself out on a limb, pushing the envelope and being passionate on the issue," Beaton said. "To me, it’s remarkable to see how much leadership he’s taken on the issue, particularly as a Republican."

What followed might be described as a GOP blueprint for climate action.

Green allies

Baker and lawmakers who crafted the 2016 offshore wind bill drew heavily on the experience of Cape Wind. Where state officials strong-armed Massachusetts’ utilities into buying power from that project at a high price, the new law requires wind developers to compete for the right to win long-term contracts with the state’s power companies. When the bids were revealed last year, the low prices received by the state caught many industry observers by surprise (Climatewire, Aug. 6, 2018).

"You have to make sure the transition is done in an economically sustainable manner that is reliable," Beaton said. Push too far too fast, he said, and you risk economic shocks that could blunt public support for climate action.

Massachusetts’ focus on offshore wind has prompted a scramble up and down the Eastern Seaboard. New York and New Jersey have established ambitious offshore wind targets in the years since, with each vying to become the hub of the nascent industry.

They still have ground to make up on their New England neighbor. The Danish wind giant Ørsted AS selected Boston to host its North American headquarters in 2017. And the first offshore turbines associated with an 800-megawatt project could begin spinning some 20 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard in 2021, when other states are still in the planning process.

State officials have paired their wind efforts with a bid to bring more Canadian hydropower. Combined, they estimate wind and water will provide roughly a third of the state’s power needs. By 2030, they expect half of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources.

Baker’s attempts to steel Massachusetts against the impacts of climate change have been similarly groundbreaking. The governor has essentially pursued a two-tiered approach. Through the state Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan, Baker has sought to implement a statewide strategy for identifying vulnerabilities associated with climate-induced weather events.

At the same time, much of his work has been focused on aiding municipalities. The state recently implemented a municipal vulnerability preparedness program in which communities identify risks. Both programs can draw funding from a $2.4 billion state bond passed last year to fund climate resilience projects.

The governor hasn’t stopped there. He recently proposed raising the tax on real estate transactions to pay for local adaptation programs. His office estimates the move could generate up to $1 billion in revenue over the next decade.

"I often cite Gov. Baker as a national leader to my Nature Conservancy colleagues across the U.S.," said Steve Long, a policy advocate at the conservancy who has worked closely with the administration on its adaptation efforts. "We’re looking at replicating a lot of what has been done in Massachusetts and taking it to other parts of the country."

Baker’s congressional testimony may ultimately mark an important juncture in his tenure, environmentalists said. The governor, they noted, could have rejected the committee’s invitation or adopted a starkly different tone when testifying.

Instead, he doubled down, calling on the federal government to support local adaptation efforts and promoting a national emissions reduction target. At one point, Baker, a former Cape Wind critic, mounted a lengthy defense of the state’s offshore wind industry. He said Massachusetts’ experience with the failed project laid the groundwork for it to be successful going forward.

"The committment and courage he brought to the testimony before the House sends a clear signal that he’s ready to be a leader among governors in taking bold action," said Campbell, the CLF president. "And it would be surprising and very unlike Gov. Baker for him to define the problem as he did without planning to take action. His tenure has not been marked by sweeping promises with no follow-up."