Senate President Karen Spilka told a room full of environmental advocates on Wednesday that nothing the Legislature does in the next two years will be as important as addressing climate change, but the Democratic leader gave no assurances of what that policy solution might look like.
Spilka, who was elected to her first full term as president last week, dropped by a breakfast event on Wednesday morning where she described a "real sense of urgency" on Beacon Hill to tackle climate change.
"We all agree this is a matter of some urgency. It's just how are we going to accomplish what we want to accomplish," Spilka said at a breakfast at Carrie Nation organized by the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
Spilka asked the activists in the room to step forward with "smart, practical, implementable ideas."
"I can commit to having my door always open," she said.
Dozens of legislators from the House and Senate dropped by the event to mingle with environmental lobbyists and advocates and hear from Spilka, Rep. Joan Meschino of Hull and ELM President Elizabeth Turnbull Henry.
"I'm actually really bullish on what is possible," Henry told the News Service after the event. "This will be, on one hand, an implementation year for some of the great things that were done in 2016 and 2018, on energy in particular. On the other hand, we're seeing a lot of opportunity for transportation emission reductions to move forward faster."
Henry said ELM supports Gov. Charlie Baker's attempt to help organize a regional cap-and-trade program for vehicle emissions that would band as many as eight Northeast and mid-Atlantic states into a coalition similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which is focused on power plant emissions.
She said the advocacy group would also be focused on making sure the second planned procurement for offshore wind energy stays on schedule.
The breakfast took place the same morning Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and other lawmakers were rolling out a major education funding reform bill. Spilka, however, said nothing should be considered more important than addressing climate change.
"If we don't take care of that, we don't have to worry about education and transportation because our coastal cities will be flooded," she said, standing on a padded bench to speak to the room.
New national climate assessments have raised alarm bells in the environmental policy community about the pace at which states, as well as the country and international community, are moving to reduce carbon emissions.
Sen. Marc Pacheco convened a hearing in December where scientists testified that the state's goal of reducing emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 is no longer adequate to stave off the dangerous consequences of global warming. The new target, they said, should be net zero emissions by 2050.
New research published this week by the Rhodium Group found that carbon emissions in the United States climbed by 3.4 percent in 2018 after three years of decline, the second-largest annual gain in more than two decades.
"One of the challenges we face is better linking mitigation with adaptation, acknowledging that reducing dependence on fossil fuels and reducing greenhouse gasses can actually be a real engine to drive the investment in adaptation that we need," Henry said.
She said the new RGGI program for vehicles that Baker is pursuing with other governors has the potential to "unlock a lot of funds" that could be invested in adaptation programs.
Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon, said he'd never seen the early-session policy breakfast as crowded as it was Wednesday where he said the room was buzzing about the need to take action on climate change. ELM and other groups are also seeking budgetary increases for key environmental agencies, including $6 million more for parks and almost $2 million more for the Department of Environmental Protection.
"The House has been too timid on this stuff," Clarke said. "We need a grand slam, not a base hit like hit like last year."
Last year, the Senate passed a comprehensive energy bill that would have directed the administration to pursue a market-based solution to reduce transportation emissions through carbon pricing, but the House scaled back that proposal. Pacheco has said he will bring forward another energy bill this session that will likely propose to ramp up the state's timeline for reducing carbon emissions.
"There should be a sense of urgency, especially in Winthrop. They live at sea level," Clarke said, referring to House Speaker Robert DeLeo's coastal hometown just north of Boston.
Spilka said she believes Gov. Charlie Baker and DeLeo both recognize the importance of taking action on climate change, but the question is whether they can agree on what needs to be done.
"There is a sense of urgency clearly with climate change and the whole issue. I think it was important years ago and from the 2008 bill going forward Massachusetts has been a leader," Spilka said, referring to the Global Warming Solutions Act that passed under Gov. Deval Patrick. "We need to, I think, take that mantle back and be a leader in the country as well."
Henry said she believes there are "thoughtful leaders in the House" who understand the urgency of the problem.
"I think there's no longer the sense that, 'Oh, environmentalists, you've been fed. Come back to us in five years.' The world has changed. So I'm cautiously optimistic that something will be done that will move the ball down the field," she said.