Politics complicate challenge to mitigate climate change amid global protest

People of all ages protest at Park Square in Pittsfield, with about 200 people, joining a global climate strike Sept. 20 to demand action on climate change.

BOSTON — Berkshire students who recently marched for the global climate strike appear to have inspired their elected officials, who plan to push for climate justice and legislation that will protect forests and reduce plastic use.

World leaders announced plans at the recent United Nations Climate Action Summit to strengthen their 2015 Paris Agreement commitments to avoid a climate crisis. Opponents of some of the climate change bills point to negative effects on the economy, which state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, views as a false choice.

"All of the 100-year storms that are coming every two to three years cost the commonwealth a great deal of money," she said. "Climate change is also impacting farmers, our fishing industry. In order to protect our economy, we need to protect our environment."

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, agrees, saying his priorities this fall include laying out a timeline to get to net zero emissions and to create green infrastructure.

"This is where I really do think shifting to a green economy creates more jobs. We can participate in the development of that infrastructure," he said. "One for me that I've really been focused on is, to move toward green energy infrastructure, we need to enhance our storage production capabilities."

For Hinds, this bill is necessary for energy consumption. He also said his proposals to protect forests are necessary for the planet because they can be used for carbon sequestration, allowing trees to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it.

"That's important, because if we're using more solar and wind, the downside to that is it's not always sunny and windy, and we really need to enhance our storage capabilities," he said.

However, Ken Conkey, a logger based in Belchertown who works in Western and Central Massachusetts, is opposed to the prohibition of logging in Massachusetts forests, a provision in one of Hinds' bills as well as a bill co-sponsored by state Rep. Paul W. Mark, D-Peru.

"We're farmers. We grow and harvest forest products. This bill would be devastating for us. Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost," Conkey said at a recent hearing of the Legislature's Committee of Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. "It blows me away a little bit. People don't care I guess about supporting us."

He sees logging as helpful and an important part of the economy.

"With this bill, all the wood in this room would be lying on a forest floor," he said. "We're not devastating any forests; we're providing habitat for wildlife that can't provide its own."

On the other hand, Logan Malik, advocacy director for the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, supported the Hinds bill, although Malik said they want to see an exception for early successional habitat, which according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture is "habitat with vigorously growing grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees."

However, one of the big challenges to the bills is politics. None of the lead sponsors testified in support of the bills at the committee hearing.

A similar lack of political support for a recent bill aimed at reducing plastic eliminated a provision mandating a fee on plastic bag use, according to state Rep. Smitty Pignatelli, D-Lenox, chairman of the House's Committee for Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.

For him, this is all part of the process of compromise and getting passed what can possibly be passed.

"It's finding that balance, the political balance," he said. "Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water. There wasn't political support within the committee to mandate a fee. One of the proponents of the fee expressed disappointment to me personally, but he acknowledged it was a much better bill."

Malik said the Berkshire Environmental Action Team was "somewhat disappointed" by the revisions doing away with the mandatory fee for single-use plastic bag alternatives, which means paper bags and thick plastic bags.

"The number of paper bags that are used just drastically shoots up and the number of thick plastic will also shoot up [without the fee]," he said. "We really want to see people moving away from single-use plastic bags."

Climate justice

However, this fall there is another, less tangible priority for the Berkshire environmental group and the legislators: climate justice, or "the right to be protected from environmental pollution and to live in and enjoy a clean and healthful environment regardless of race, income, national origin or English language proficiency."

The bill itself, co-sponsored by Mark, defines an environmental justice population deserving of protection as areas that have specific levels of minority groups, households lacking English proficiency and poverty levels.

Farley-Bouvier said environmental justice needs to be "at the center of all our decisions," and Pittsfield, which she represents, is an environmental justice community.

"Those who live in poverty, those who are people of color are just disproportionately impacted by pollution and living in places where asthma rates are higher," she said.

For the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, this means bringing everyone into the process of mitigating climate change, especially marginalized communities. Malik and Pignatelli agree it is important to codify protections for the environment for marginalized communities.

At the end of the climate strike, legislators left feeling inspired. However, Pignatelli had a message for everyone involved.

"Stay involved," he said. "Expect more of your elected officials at every level of government. Follow up with phone calls and letters and making sure you get commitments of elected officials."

Pignatelli, Farley-Bouvier, Mark and Hinds all said they were committed to working on climate change and recognized the importance of passing bills to mitigate climate change.

"We're running out of time," Pignatelli said. "We only got one earth to live in and let's preserve it for future generations."

Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.