Ben Hellerstein and Jane Winn: Berkshire drought attests to global warming's impact


PITTSFIELD >> With three months to go, 2016 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record — and according to NASA, July was the hottest month ever measured on our planet.

It's hard to ignore the ways that climate change, driven by carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels, is affecting our communities and our way of life. As global temperatures rise, extreme storms, dangerous heat waves, and droughts are becoming more frequent and severe.

In the Berkshires, all but five communities are facing a moderate or severe drought. The Housatonic is running at only 20 percent of its average flow in Pittsfield and Great Barrington, and reservoir levels in Lenox are at 75 percent of normal. Across New England, wells and rivers are running dry, and the drought is taking a major toll on farmers, families, and wildlife.

As global warming continues, we can expect droughts and other impacts to become even worse.

The good news is that we know exactly why this problem is happening and what to do about it. We have solutions at our fingertips to cut the pollution that is fueling climate change.

The answer is clean energy — lots of it, and fast. By transitioning our society away from dangerous fuels like coal, oil and gas — and instead using zero-emission energy sources — we can protect our communities from the worst impacts of global warming. A future powered by 100 percent clean, renewable energy is within reach for Massachusetts.

Over the last decade, we have made astonishing progress on clean energy solutions. For example:

* In Massachusetts, we have 200 times more solar energy installed today than we did 10 years ago. Nationally, solar is likely to be the leading new source of electricity this year, ahead of gas for the first time.

* Wind energy is already a major source of electricity, and it continues to grow. America's first offshore wind farm is about to start producing power off the coast of Rhode Island. Massachusetts could be next, thanks to the passage of a major offshore wind energy bill this July.

* Clean car technologies are also accelerating. New vehicles like the Chevy Bolt and the Proterra bus run on electricity — which can come from zero-emission sources rather than from dirty fuels. These kinds of vehicles were mostly unavailable a decade ago, but now there are more than a half-million on America's roads.

* Energy efficient building construction and technologies are making a difference too. In leading states like Massachusetts and California, overall demand for electricity is staying flat or even declining, even as their healthy economies grow.

Pittsfield is acting

Communities in the Berkshires are taking a leadership role in promoting clean energy. Pittsfield has set a goal of reducing energy use across the community by 20 percent by 2020. The city has installed energy management systems in its schools and municipal buildings to identify opportunities to save energy. Solar installations on the wastewater treatment plant and capped landfill add up to 4.5 megawatts of clean energy capacity.

Additionally, Pittsfield has installed an in-line hydro-turbine at the Coltsville Flow Station. This innovative technology captures excess pressure from the city's public water system to produce clean energy.

What our communities and our state have achieved so far is just the beginning of what is possible. Now, the challenge is to do much more on clean energy, much faster. We need our leaders at all levels to take action.

There are several important opportunities on the horizon.

This fall, Gov. Charlie Baker and the leaders of eight other Northeastern states will decide how quickly to limit dangerous carbon pollution from power plants across the region, through a program called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. In August, administration officials announced their support for doubling the strength of the program through 2030. Gov. Baker should follow through on his administration's commitment to strengthen the program and do everything he can to get the other participating states on board.

Although Gov. Baker has taken some encouraging steps on clean energy recently, he continues to support the use of public money to pay for new gas pipelines. These pipelines could keep Massachusetts hooked on fossil fuel for decades to come. The governor should drop his support for gas pipelines, and focus on meeting the state's energy needs with clean resources like solar, wind, and energy efficiency instead.

Local officials also have an important role to play. Communities in the Berkshires and all across Massachusetts should follow the example of Pittsfield and act quickly to reduce their carbon emissions and promote clean energy.

Finally, leaders on all levels — in state government, local government, businesses, and institutions — should commit to a goal of 100 percent renewable energy.

Global warming poses major challenges to communities in the Berkshires, but the good news is that we have the tools we need to solve it. With action on the state and local level, we can move quickly towards a future powered entirely by clean, renewable energy.

Ben Hellerstein is the state director of Environment Massachusetts, and Jane Winn is the executive director of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team.


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