Powerlines in Medway, MA. Photo by Jesse Costa for WBUR

Powerlines in Medway, MA. Photo by Jesse Costa for WBUR

The frightening report released last week by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that climate change has become an even greater, and more immediate threat, than the already dire warnings had predicted. But climate change still doesn’t rise to the top of the list of concerns in the statewide political races across our region. We found that surprising, considering New England residents seem to want their elected officials to do something about it: a poll from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that roughly 56 percent of Americans want their governor to do more to combat climate change, and that number’s a bit higher in coastal states like Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

So, how are candidates talking about climate change? And how are voters responding? 

NHPR’s Annie Ropeik and WBUR’s Bruce Gellerman speak with John Dankosky about their state’s gubernatorial races, what governors can do to combat climate change and the role of journalists in discussing these issues with politicians.

Interview Highlights 

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

John Dankosky: Annie, let’s start with you and with the Republican Governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, who is up for reelection. What has his record been on issues of climate change and the environment? 

Annie Ropeik: Chris Sununu has taken a pretty hands-off approach when it comes to climate in his first two years as our governor, he often will say it’s more of a federal issue than a state one. He has said in the past that he’s not sure about some of the scientific conclusions that are broadly accepted about the role of carbon emissions in climate change, for example. This is actually him taking a bit of a step back from how he talked about the issue on the campaign trail. Sununu is an MIT-trained environmental and civil engineer, he used to run a ski resort so he has tons of firsthand experience with this issue, and he has played that up in the past but in the State House he has taken more of a step back,  and taken a wait and see approach and left it to the federal government.

What about his democratic challenger Molly Kelly?

Ropeik: Molly Kelly really toes the democratic party line when it comes to climate change. She often will bring it up, the same way that Sununu does, where they like to say the word but we don’t really hear a lot of specifics from either of them. Here’s Molly Kelly answering a question about natural gas at a forum during the primary campaign: “You mentioned climate change, I believe that climate change is real. We have a governor who said that climate change is not real. So I think that what policies we move forward on energy have to be based on fact and on science.” So beyond that we don’t hear a lot of specifics from Molly Kelly, she says that we need to wean off of fossil fuels, increase renewable development, she has a few ideas for how to enact that, but again doesn’t go into a ton of detail for how to fund or scale up that development.

Let’s go to Massachusetts and talk about the Republican Governor there, Charlie Baker, how has his record been on environmental issues and climate change?

Bruce Gellerman: Well according to the Environmental League of Massachusetts and half a dozen other environmental organizations around the state, who give him a grade every year, the latest grade has been a C and has been a C all through his term in office so far. And he gets a couple of F’s, he gets 9 D’s, 4 C’s, 5 B’s and 4 A’s on 27 different issues.

So that’s a pretty wide range, but I would guess that he grades a little bit better than other Republican Governors around the country. He’s a “Massachusetts Republican” after all so that C grade is probably something that’s about what you can expect, tell me about that, about his place in the Republican Party.

Gellerman: Well he’s an anomaly as you say. He wrote a letter to the Department of Energy when Trump wanted to drill offshore for gas and oil, and he wrote a very stern letter to the head of the Department of Energy saying no way. Massachusetts is at the end of the energy road so we have to import most of the energy that we convert into electricity and heat, so he’s cognizant of that, he’s been pushing big time into offshore wind. But he takes a very regional approach to energy because we are kind of landlocked in a sense, without offshore wind, we’re landlocked from our energy supplies. So he has to look north, south, east, and west, so he’s taken a very practical, pragmatic, but not very ambitious, cutting edge. I think that’s what the environmental organizations here say, he’s ok, he needs to be a lot bolder.

What about his Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race, Jay Gonzalez? Where does he stand on some of these issues? 

Gellerman: Gonzalez is more progressive if that’s the term to use in joining with environmentalists and people who believe and say and scientists who assert that we are entering a cataclysmic climate future. So he takes a much more aggressive approach. He wants to triple the renewable portfolio standards that we have, he wants to achieve 50 percent of renewable energy by 2030, on offshore wind he’s doubling down, but in that sense, he’s going along with the Governor who’s proposing another 1600 megawatts. He wants to eliminate constraints on solar energy, net metering caps and so on, he wants to require that all buildings where its possible to have solar, and he definitely opposes the expansion of pipeline gas infrastructure. Not surprising, he wants to make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to adopt carbon pricing, basically a carbon tax on all fossil fuel imports that contain carbon.

Of course, the candidates on the campaign trail are only going to talk about these issues only in so much as the voters want them to and care about it themselves. Elizabeth Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, describes what Massachusetts voters are thinking about this election season: “They’re thinking about the economy, they’re thinking about education, they’re thinking about health care, but we know that across the Commonwealth there are about 600,000 people for whom environment is a number one or number two issues. And that’s a lot.” It seems like a lot. Bruce, put that into context for us. Are 600,000 people who really care about environmental issues a lot? 

Gellerman: In context, there were 2.2 million votes cast in the last gubernatorial election here in Massachusetts and Baker won by just 40,000 votes, so you could say that’s a lot. But you know in terms of that list of going down what’s the importance for the electorate here in Massachusetts, it’s issue number five maybe six on their list, so what do people vote on.

Annie, what about you, what are you hearing in New Hampshire? Are people concerned about the environment this time around? How much do you think people are paying attention to this issue with all the other things they have to worry about at the polls? 

Ropeik: Interestingly, we don’t even have as much polling data on this as Massachusetts does. We have some periodic voter surveys that come out from the University of New Hampshire. They asked voters before the primary election what they’re the top problem facing New Hampshire, what they thought the top problem was. But the choices were limited to drugs, healthcare, education, and several economic issues, we didn’t see energy or climate or the environment, in general, make that list. But I can say anecdotally when I talk to voters, especially Democrats, it can be a top issue. In places like Portsmouth, or in areas that are affected by water contamination and emissions issues it does rise to the surface a bit more. I think energy is also really rising to the top during this gubernatorial campaign, but as we’ve said it’s not always an environmental issue for every candidate and every voter, even though it is sort of linked to climate change at its basic level.

Gellerman: John, I should say that if you change the word ‘energy’ for ‘jobs,’ then the equation starts changing. So you know how do you phrase energy issues, how do you frame them, talk about jobs and people start listening to a little bit differently.

Ropeik: That’s what we’re seeing in New Hampshire too, it is completely an economic issue. Whether you’re trying to advocate for renewable energy as a job creator and economic driver, or whether you’re saying we need to keep rates down and not over-subsidize renewables in order to help businesses survive in the state.

One of the things I’ve heard from the people who are running for governor of Connecticut, especially on the Republican side, is what can a governor really do to combat climate change? Yeah, maybe there are jobs there, but what can a governor really do him or herself. Here’s Governor Chris Sununu after President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord in June of 2017: “It’s not my job to go through the whole accord and look at the in-depth impacts across the country economically.” It sounds like Chris Sununu is saying yeah, maybe I can do something in terms of more clean energy jobs, maybe in so much as it helps the economy of New Hampshire, this is something I should be concerned about, but it’s not really my job to go through the Paris Climate Accord and figure out what little New Hampshire can do to solve this global problem.  

Ropeik: Yeah that’s right when we asked him after President Trump made that decision around the Paris Climate Accords what Governor Sununu thought, he said he hadn’t really given much thought to it because he saw it as a federal issue. He tends to focus on the specific policy that you’re talking about when it comes to climate change, where other candidates might zoom out and say regardless of this specific policy you’re talking about, I believe climate change is real, it’s something you hear from Democrats a lot. But Governor Sununu, if you ask him about federal coal pollution or air emissions policy, he’ll say well we don’t have coal plants here in New Hampshire, but I’m studying it.

And sea level rise, I think we don’t see as much conversation around that as maybe we will several years from now when that is seriously impacting our seacoast region. The same thing about warming winters, that is guaranteed going to effect snow and ski tourism in our northern part of our state, and we don’t see a ton of direct action on that yet, but I think this will become a state issue at some point whether he likes it or not.

Gellerman: And you know, John, pulling out of the Paris Accord makes the sub-national entities, governments like states and cities, much more important because it’s going to be up to them to do something about climate change,  and also they’re going to feel the effects of climate change most directly. These are very complex issues, they defy political positions because they really are bread and butter economic issues.

For years we’ve been asking candidates questions like, ‘do you believe that humans caused climate change?’ Do you believe that climate change is real?’ And the answers to those questions often take up an awful lot of the space that we might devote to covering a topic like this. How do you think about this as a reporter? Because as I think you’ve both said, the settled science is pretty clear. Could we be asking, I don’t know, tighter questions, deeper types of questions of these candidates? 

Ropeik: I think we need to be doing both, I think it is important that voters know if candidates do believe and acknowledge that climate change is real and understand the causes. But then when they give that answer,  it’s also our responsibility to push past that to the next question, the question that says, ok you’ve said that you don’t believe it’s real, and then we lay out the science that says that it is, and we say given these facts, these realities, what do you propose to do about this particular aspect of climate change that affects our state. It’s a question they’re going to have to answer regardless of their views on the science, and I think it’s our job to keep kind of pushing that issue forward.

I’m starting to really see it as one of those issues that’s tipping past something we can kind of have a debate around the yes or no of it, the whether or not of it, and it really needs to become a debate around the how are we going to address it, because we’re seeing that in the response from voters, and from the scientific community to the UN report, which you mentioned at the beginning, and it’s not going away. And so I think the more solid the science becomes and solid the consensus becomes, the less acceptable it is for us to just let a candidate stop at ‘No, I don’t believe.’

This is an edited interview from the October 18, 2018 episode of NEXT. You can listen to the entire show right nowFind out when NEXT airs throughout all of New England.