Carbon Pricing in Massachusetts: Renewing Our Democracy

Massachusetts has two bills to put a fair price on carbon, one introduced by Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), the other by Sen. Michael Barrett (D-Lexington). It’s remarkable that two experienced senators have introduced legislation that would collect new revenues, knowing they’ll be accused of “raising taxes.” Even more remarkable is the way the bills are being promoted on the public stage. We – the citizens of MA – are being asked to weigh in on what this legislation should look like. How will this process work and how can it renew our democracy?

It’s worth noting why Senators Pacheco and Barrett have introduced these bills. Simply put, they know this legislation is essential to meeting our Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) goals. First, the steps we’ve taken since 2008 haven’t been good enough. In a presentation at UMass Amherst last November, GWSA manager Aisling O’Shea predicted that at present growth rates, emissions in 2020 will be only 15.7% below 1990 levels, almost 10% shy of our 25% GWSA commitment. Some programs have either been underfunded, ineffective, or not implemented at all. Second, with the Baker administration taking office, there will be more interest in policies that blend market mechanisms with government programs.

Carbon pricing is a market mechanism that, depending on how it’s structured, can appeal to both Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives. Enter Senators Pacheco, Barrett, and the Massachussets Carbon Pricing Coalition. The Coalition is chaired by Clean Water Action and Climate XChange, and includes environmental organizations like the Better Future Project, the Acadia Center, MA Climate Action Network, Sierra Club MA, and the Environmental League of MA, business organizations like the Climate Action Business Association and Environmental Entrepreneurs. It is also seeking to add Coalition members from labor and community organizations like Community Labor United.

The Coalition is working closely with both Senators Barrett and Pacheco. Rather than putting its weight behind either of the current bills, the Coalition strategy is to build broad grass-roots support for carbon pricing, and through dozens of community-level conversations around the state, to allow the best ideas to emerge and gain popular support. Many of these conversations will include legislators so they can hear what their constituents think. That’s what we mean by renewing democracy!

Right now, 350Mass is organizing house parties and forums across the state to educate people about carbon pricing. Our parties in the Pioneer Valley will start in April, and we’ll have more details in upcoming Newsletters. The idea will be to prepare people with the information they’ll need in order to have informed conversations with their legislators. We’ll start by educating climate activists and then extend the house parties to our friends, neighbors, and members of our civic and religious organizations.

Although the parties will be fun, the conversations won’t all be easy. There are difficult decisions to be made. Should all of the revenues or only some of them be returned to taxpayers? If some revenues will be spent on clean energy and transportation, what programs should get funded? And on what basis should that be decided? Should it be the programs that reduce emissions the most? The ones that have the most popular support, or are most cost-effective? How important is environmental justice, and making sure the needs of vulnerable populations are met? How can we be sure these populations won’t be harmed? These are tough decisions indeed. The good news is that it’s up to us to do our homework, show up, and be prepared to learn from each other and work together so our children can have a better world. In other words, “this is what democracy looks like!”