Putting Teeth into the President’s Promise

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”

President Barack Obama, January 21, 2013

gina mccarthy
Gina McCarthy

Throughout the presidential campaign, many of us waited anxiously to hear about climate change from either major candidate. Many of us joined actions urging them to speak out, but the silence was deafening. Then came Superstorm Sandy—a storm that amplified our protests with the voices of the raging wind and tumultuous sea. And whether as a result of Sandy or from a new sense of power and obligation, President Obama finally was moved to speak about climate change during the inauguration and the State of the Union. Surprised and encouraged by his words, climate safety activists are looking forward to what Obama’s second term will bring.

We will soon see an early indication of the President’s commitment when he announces his replacements for outgoing Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief Lisa Jackson. The rumor that Bostonian Gina McCarthy is a potential nominee for the EPA is exciting to all who have heard her speak or worked with her on the creation of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and other climate-positive policies. Many take heart in the appointments of John Kerry to the State Department and Sally Jewell to Interior.

Feb 13 Tar Sands CD
February 13 Tar Sands civil disobedience participants including
BC professor Juliet Schor (right).

The President’s decision on whether or not to permit the Keystone the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline will be another early indicator of the chances for significant action on climate this term.  Boston College professor Juliet Schor joined 47 other national leaders in a sit-in at the White House on Feb. 13 designed to build momentum for the President to reject the pipeline’s permit application. About her actions, Schor says, “I was willing to risk arrest because decades of scientific evidence, argument, and information have failed to move U.S. elites to protect the planet and the future of humanity. It is clear that we need to take on the fossil-fuel industry, which is acting in a stunningly dangerous and amoral way. History shows us that major social change often requires civil disobedience. I consider this a generational obligation.” Many more Boston area activists will travel to Washington, DC, for the Forward on Climate demonstration on February 17. Organizers are hoping that upwards of 20,000 people will gather at the Washington Monument to call for rejection of the pipeline permit.

Communities hit by Superstorm Sandy are likewise feeling the urgency of climate change. Boston dodged the climate bullet on October 29 when Sandy’s storm surge hit at low tide rather than high tide. A new study at Boston Harbor Association finds that had the storm hit five hours earlier, it is likely that seven percent of the city would have been flooded. By the end of this century, almost a third of the city will be vulnerable to flooding due to higher sea levels resulting from global climate change.

People in city government and in Boston’s real-estate community are getting serious about the rising seas and about the need to adapt to a warmer climate more generally. State government as well is planning new ways to protect the Commonwealth from climate threats. One pragmatic action that’s currently being debated at the State House is a major change in funding for transportation projects, including improvements to mass transit that would greatly reduce greenhouse gas production related to vehicle travel. Success at the State House is now much more likely given Governor Patrick’s high-profile advocacy and a strategic alliance between metro Boston residents who depend on the MBTA and other Massachusetts residents who depend on regional transit authorities. Public Transit — Public Good, a campaign by the Green Justice Coalition, aims to expand funding for public transit throughout the state.

Unfortunately, sea-level rise is just one climate impact already hitting Boston. Extreme heat, and the poor air quality that comes with hotter days, is already the number one climate impact in our region. Expanded funding for mass transit is essential to cleaner air and cooler summers. Boston residents also need expanded access to state energy-efficiency programs to cope with more high-heat days. The Department of Public Utilities recently approved plans for the Commonwealth’s energy-efficiency program, MassSave, for the next three years. The plans include some exciting new initiatives, such as “Efficient Neighborhoods +.” The details are still being outlined, but in essence, this initiative is likely to improve access for low-to-moderate income families who have been paying into MassSave for years but have not yet been able to afford the 25 percent co-pay for the insulation and other services that the program subsidizes.

Whether you decide to head to Washington, DC, to take action on a national level or seek to participate in regional climate action closer to home, there are many ways you can get involved. President Obama’s words were stirring. We, the people, have an obligation to make good on their promise.

Link up with other BostonCAN volunteers at the Local Environmental Action conference on Sunday, March 10th.

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