Columnist Russ Vernon-Jones: Bright spots — Celebrate local progress on climate change

By RUSS VERNON-JONES

Published: 08-25-2023 7:13 PM

The climate news has been especially brutal recently — both locally and globally. While it’s important to face how bad things are, I think it is wise to also put our attention on good climate news wherever we can find it. Here are some of the local items that I’ve found encouraging recently.

The city of Northampton has posted a job opening for a new position of “Director of Climate Action and Project Administration.” Just reading parts of the description raised my spirits:

“We are seeking a passionate, future-thinking professional who is keenly aware of the urgent nature of the climate crisis we are in. This person must operate from a holistic view that includes mitigation, adaptation, community resiliency, and climate justice. … [The] director should foster a culture of environmental care throughout our community and municipal government in which ecologically sustainable initiatives, policies, actions, and attitudes are embraced, pursued, and celebrated.”

The creation, design, and funding of a new city department to be headed by this director didn’t just happen, of course. This was the result of many months of work by grassroots local activists who formed the Northampton Climate Emergency Coalition and, with the mayor and City Council, created this model initiative.

In Massachusetts, buildings are responsible for 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Getting to zero emissions will be challenging. A good place to start is not to use fossil fuels in any new buildings. Northampton has petitioned the Legislature to be allowed to adopt a building code that would forbid the use of fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa have sponsored and testified in favor of this bill and, with Rep. Mindy Domb, introduced or supported other fine climate legislation that would benefit our local cities and towns.

Northampton and Amherst also are considering adopting the Massachusetts Municipal Opt-in Specialized Stretch Energy Code. This code has three pathways for moving toward net-zero buildings. One option still allows some use of fossil fuels, but requires on-site solar generation, wiring for full electrification, and higher standards of energy efficiency.

Another is an all-electric option. Seventeen municipalities in Massachusetts have already adopted the specialized code. Let’s support our councilors and Select Board members in every local municipality to adopt this vital code promptly.

Amherst, Northampton and Pelham are moving forward with their plan to create a nonprofit entity that will purchase electricity for the three towns. Such a “community choice aggregation” is already in place in a good number of Massachusetts municipalities. Our local version is called Valley Green Energy, and will enable us to have an affordable option for greener electricity than we can get from Eversource. It also will mean the cost of our electricity will no longer include profits for Eversource. After years of work by local activists and municipal officials, the aggregation plan is nearly ready to be submitted to the state Department of Public Utilities for approval.

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The director of sustainability in Amherst recently reported that the town has achieved a 20% reduction in municipal energy use (compared to a 2011 baseline). Amherst currently has two graduate-level fellows working on updating emissions data collection and on inventorying HVAC systems in town buildings as a step toward getting all of them off of fossil fuels.

Jack Czajkowski, the chairman of the Climate Change Committee in Hadley, recently wrote to me that Hadley has newly met the criteria to be a Massachusetts “Green Community.” The Hadley committee is “planning a speaker series on topics related to the climate, flooding, and educating our youth about climate issues for 2024” in order to “spark communication in our community.”

Jack also wrote about the terrible droughts and floods his family’s farm has endured. The climate crisis is no longer far off or far away. It’s here and now.

I’m sure there are positive actions being taken in other local municipalities. We are all in this together.

The Springfield Climate Justice Coalition and its activist allies recently had a victory when the Massachusetts secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs did what they had petitioned her to do — reject Eversource’s environmental impact statement for its proposed (unnecessary) fracked gas pipeline through Longmeadow and Springfield. She noted receiving an anti-gas-expansion petition with over 6,000 signatures and quoted from the petition in her response.

Eversource can apply again after additional analysis and community outreach. (You can still add your signature on this petition to the governor at actionnetwork.org/petitions/nofutureforgas.)

We can be pleased that all of these steps are being taken. And at the same time, we need to face that things are not moving fast enough on the climate front, even here in the Valley. Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres said last week, “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived.” It’s time that we all acknowledge that we are in an emergency and act accordingly locally, including holding our local leaders accountable for bold climate action and leadership.

Russ Vernon-Jones of Amherst is a member of the Steering Committee of Climate Action Now (CAN). The views expressed here are his own. He blogs regularly on climate justice at www.russvernonjones.org.

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