Climate Psychology and the Massachusetts Legislature

When one is faced with designing a museum exhibit about climate change, a video for the public, or some other product it is vital to understand the audience. Discussions of psychology and climate change become eminently practical. That is also true when one tries to influence policymakers. Then one wants to know: how do they think?

Many people and groups concerned about increasing the supply of renewable energy are facing that question as they work with the Massachusetts legislature. The legislature is likely to produce a comprehensive energy bill soon, bring it to a vote before the end of July, and send it to Governor Baker, a so-called moderate Republican, for his signature.

It has been many years since the state legislature passed landmark, forward-thinking legislation, such as the Global Warming Solutions Act (2008). Legislators are now faced with important decisions about investing in solar energy and offshore wind, importing more hydropower from Canada, increasing energy efficiency in homes and businesses, putting a price on carbon across all sectors (e.g., transportation as well as electricity), and more. New England already has a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that has saved consumers billions of dollars and reduced emissions. Yet far more needs to be done if Massachusetts and New England intend to meet goals that, should they be implemented worldwide, have at least a chance of limiting global warming to 2° C.

A key policy in this state, and many other states, is called the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS. The RPS requires electricity providers to generate a particular percentage of electricity from solar power, wind, or other “Class I” renewable sources. The percentage increases by 1% annually under current law. Mass Energy, the Sierra Club, and many other organizations want the legislature to increase that annual increment to 2%, which would mean that by 2050 at least 80% of the state’s electricity would come from renewable sources, compared to 12% now. This is feasible, partly because New England has vast offshore wind resources available for energy generation.

Legislators have a limited appetite to act on big challenges, whether about health care, the environment, or other issues. Communicating clearly with them about the RPS is vital. Essentially, if fossil fuel prices remain as low as they are now the only path to assure that the state’s electricity system is fueled predominantly by renewable sources is by mandating that goal in law. Lobbyists for the politically powerful electricity providers, pipeline builders, and other interest groups push back. Many policymakers don’t understand complex details of energy and climate, and may also believe that they are doing “enough” for climate change if they legislate on only a few pieces of the puzzle.

Governor Baker apparently falls into that category, and he has focused most of his energy on importing more Canadian hydropower. The Governor also wants electricity providers to build new natural gas pipelines to and within Massachusetts—but several reputable studies show the state does not need new pipelines. Moreover, if new pipelines are built and used then natural gas is likely to remain a very large part of the electricity generation infrastructure in the state for decades, squeezing out the growth of renewable sources.

Almost all policymakers in the state say they are concerned about climate change. That is not enough. As James Hansen said about the Paris climate agreement, “We’re not going to reduce emissions as long as we let fossil fuels be the cheapest form of energy”—or unless, I would add, policymakers mandate, via the RPS or other means, that providers steadily use more renewable energy.

How does one persuade “reasonable” policymakers (not climate change deniers) to make the RPS a priority? Many seem to be more concerned about keeping the price of electricity as low as possible and yet say that they favor combating climate change. Those two perspectives are not compatible, and “reasonable” policymakers as well as their constituents will be affected as much by climate change as everyone else.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section.)

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