Build Back Better or Bust: Why 2020 Must be a Year of Bold Climate Action

Written by Isabella Gambill, Senior Policy Advisory on climate, energy, & resilience 

Currently, the Greater Boston region is faced with one of the more complex economic, health, political, and social justice moments of our lifetime. With anticipated state budgetary shortfalls of between $6B-8B in addition to overburdened and underfunded municipal governments, the legislative focus has shifted from bold climate, transportation, and healthcare policies, to relief strategies to ensure that residents survive the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite our state’s leadership in education and the provision of social services, at the moment Massachusetts is faced with some of the highest food insecurity numbers for children in the country, and the highest unemployment number of any state: over 17% as of June 20201. Desperate times require even bolder solutions if all our communities are to not only survive but also thrive in the future. Now is our chance to re-imagine what we want to prioritize as we rebuild in order to safeguard Boston’s economic vitality, sustainability, competitiveness, resilience, and equitable growth.


The Greater Boston business community has a unique role to play in this recovery process. Currently, the business community lacks diversity, equity, and inclusion; by empowering marginalized voices that traditionally have been excluded from the business world and centering them in our work, the better we will all be at representing the communities that we serve. New opportunities for partnership with diverse stakeholders can also help to unveil emerging markets in climate finance, clean energy deployment, and to identify talent that could spur further innovation and growth. Beyond broader representation in the business world, we also have an opportunity for structural change in how we do business, by 1) ensuring funding structures incorporate equity; 2) ensuring workforce development can be deployed in marginalized communities that were heavily hit by COVID-19 unemployment, and 3) learning from the untapped talent and knowledge that currently does not have much representation or partnership in the business world.


Prioritizing a Green Recovery: Investing in Community Resilience


As a coastal city with significant economic activity directly adjacent to the water, Boston remains vulnerable to climate-related threats like sea level rise, storm surge and flooding, and more frequent and intense storms as the climate changes. The additional challenge of extreme heat poses a more immediate climate threat. The cumulative stressors of COVID-19 and extreme heatwaves are straining our public cooling centers, making it even harder for residents to remain safe and resilient in these uncertain times. To build back better, it is also imperative that we acknowledge these climate risks and acknowledge that the resulting impacts are not borne equally amongst Greater Boston’s communities. Many of the communities most impacted by COVID-19 also happen to be on the frontline of projected sea-level rise and storm surge, to be the most likely to experience extreme heat and are also designated environmental justice communities. In order for us to be truly resilient as a Greater Boston community, we need to prioritize our most vulnerable and marginalized communities in our building back better investments. We need to center the voices and experiences of our most vulnerable if we ever hope to truly thrive.


Climate resilience experts often cite the statistic that for every dollar we spend proactively on climate resilience, we save six dollars in disaster recovery spending in the event of a future natural disaster2. With the current economic reality in municipal, state, and federal agencies, we must be as cost-effective as possible in spending our COVID-19 recovery dollars in ways that enhance our city’s resilience, both in terms of climate resilience and community resilience.  For every dollar spent on critical infrastructure upgrades as we build back better, we must prioritize how to spend that money on infrastructure that is decarbonized, resilient to climate risks, and that is accessible to all in Boston. We need to think about how that money benefits businesses and residents alike, so that money spent on initiatives like electric vehicle fleet deployment and community microgrids prioritizes these investments in environmental justice communities and communities of color, where residents are suffering from disproportionate levels of air pollution and energy unreliability. Economic development needs to promote workforce development in clean energy jobs in a way that is accessible and equitable to Boston’s most marginalized and hardest hit communities.


The more that we can invest our building back better dollars in efforts that promote equitable economic development and growth, prioritize investment in environmental justice and COVID-19 hotspot communities, and support both climate mitigation (decarbonization) and adaptation (resilience) as we invest in Boston’s future – the more resilient Boston’s coast and communities will be in weathering future storms and unanticipated challenges.


2020: A Year for Bold Climate Action


Due to the pandemic, the Massachusetts legislature acknowledged that COVID-19 has delayed tangible progress on necessary transportation, climate, and healthcare policy efforts, and took the unusual decision to extend the legislative session to the end of the calendar year. Between now and December 2020, the state house must resolve disagreements on police reform, economic development, a transportation bond bill, and reconcile two significantly different versions of climate legislation from the House and Senate. The pressure is on the state house to deliver large legislative wins this session, and now more than ever - bold, comprehensive, and holistic visions for how Boston can build back better are needed.


If Boston hopes to invest cost-effectively in the future of the region, then it cannot be done without substantial climate action from both the legislature and the Baker administration before the end of the calendar year. While considerable progress has been made on municipal preparedness and climate resilience through the Municipal Vulnerability Program (MVP) and other municipal-focused climate spending, more must be done to invest in the region’s climate resilience, resilient and accessible transportation infrastructure, and decarbonization across jurisdictions. More must be done to prioritize investment in projects that both decarbonize and mitigate the future emissions of greenhouse gases, and also help us to adapt and become more resilient to climate change. More must be done to address climate threats comprehensively and holistically across the Greater Boston region.


Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, as we write climate legislation and the future pathway for Massachusetts’ decarbonization, we must ask ourselves: which voices are lifted up? Who benefits? Who gets left behind? How can we equitably invest in clean energy development, workforce development, district-scale energy solutions, community renewables, energy reliability, and climate adaptation and resilience – in ways that uplift and benefit all Greater Boston residents, businesses, and workers? What might a future Boston look like, if we allowed ourselves to imagine what it would take for all our communities to thrive?


Policy makers, businesses, and Boston residents must come together to affirm the Commonwealth’s commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions across sectors and net zero emissions by 2050. We must set out a pathway for equitable decarbonization that invests in deep energy retrofits, grid modernization, clean energy deployment that prioritizes underserved communities, and regional climate resilience investments. At the state house, the Senate and House must reconcile two very different pieces of climate legislation and affirm the Commonwealth’s leadership through statutory greenhouse gas emissions reductions updates, climate adaptation commitments, equitable clean energy workforce development, and environmental justice. Within the Baker Administration, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) is anticipated to release both the 2030 Massachusetts Clean Energy and Climate Plan and the Decarbonization Roadmap Study in December 2020. The City of Boston updated its Climate Action Plan in December 2019, and potential next steps at the city-level are likely to be discussed in detail as we approach a mayoral election year. The opportunities for change and innovation are just within reach.


In every branch of our state and city government, in our businesses, in our homes, and throughout our communities – we have the opportunity to build back better. As the federal government faces budget cuts, increasing scrutiny, and an upcoming presidential election, now more than ever Boston needs to assert its climate leadership and be bold in its climate action. 2020 has already proven to be a year of grief, loss, and extreme hardship – it is not too late to affirm 2020 as the year that Massachusetts commits to bold climate leadership that lays the groundwork for a better future for all our residents.





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