A 2015 NASA visualization depicts climate change from 1880-2015.

A 2015 NASA visualization depicts climate change from 1880-2015.

Credit: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Law and Effect: The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008

July 13, 2017

Back in 2006, State Senator Marc Pacheco considered himself relatively knowledgeable about environmental issues. But then, one day, he saw "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore's seminal climate-change documentary, at the Coolidge Corner move theater. 

"It really impacted me," Pacheco, the Senate president pro tempore, recalls. "Because I saw, on the screen, come to life, the problems that were taking place all across the planet, and I came to understand much more clearly the urgency of trying to act on this issue."

So Pacheco trained to become one of Al Gore’s “Climate Messengers.” He formed a new Senate committee on global warming. And he started work on what became the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008.

"The stars were aligned just right," Pacheco says. "We had a Democratic governor" — Deval Patrick — "that came in, that was progressive, [and] wanted to deal with these issues. We had a [House] speaker and a Senate president" — Sal DiMasi and Therese Murray, respectively — "that was willing to help him get legislation passed."   

The new law capped a whole suite of environmental legislation passed during that period, and required that Massachusetts cut greenhouse gas emissions sharply. By 2020, they have to be 25 percent lower than they were in 1990. And by 2050, they have to be 80 percent lower.

"We received a lot of opposition," Pacheco says. "We were told it was going to ruin the Massachusetts economy, it was going to be a job killer. But the environmental organizations across the state came together, and citizens all across Massachusetts came together to call on their legislators not to back off, because the problem was too urgent."

Today, those emissions are down significantly — enough that Massachusetts should either hit that 2020 limit, or come very close. But the picture isn’t entirely rosy. From 2009 to 2010, and again from 2012 to 2013, emissions actually rose. And while they’ve dropped overall, it took a court challenge for the executive branch to fully follow the law.

"The Global Warming Solutions Act of 2008 required the state to issue implementation regulations that were designed to ensure the state met an emission limit in 2020," says David Ismay, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF). "Those were supposed to issue on the first of January, 2012, and they didn’t."

Ismay is alluding to one of the Global Warming Solutions Act’s distinctive features. It didn’t specify exactly how Massachusetts would reach those tough new emissions limits. Instead, it said that the Department of Environmental Protection would “promulgate regulations” to make them a reality. That never happened — so CLF went to court.

"This lawsuit was a bit frustrating — that we had to bring it, and the state wasn’t doing these regulations on their own," Ismay says.

Both the Patrick administration and the administration of his successor, Governor Charlie Baker, argued that new regulations were unnecessary, and cited three preexisting programs they claimed already had the state on the right track. The dispute made its way to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which resoundingly rejected that argument last year. To reach the 2020 limit, the SJC said, new regulations are essential, and need to include strict caps on multiple emissions sources that decline every single year.

For Ismay and CLF, this was a huge victory. Without it, Ismay says, the state might not have gotten where it still needs to go.  

"Those upticks...are important," Ismay says, referring to emissions increases between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013. "Those are the result of not having regulations."

He adds, "the clock is ticking, and we really need to work on this."

Now, in the wake of last year's SJC ruling, the Baker Administration doesn’t really have a choice. Last fall, in an executive order that called climate change a “serious threat,” the governor ordered the Department of Environmental Protection to issue the new regulations that were originally due five and a half years ago. They’re supposed to be finalized next month.

Marc Pacheco says he’s heartened by that response. But, he adds: "We need to be having oversight hearings.... We need to push DEP. We need to push all the executive-branch offices."

"I’m 100 percent in agreement with the governor," Pacheco adds. "Now, we have to look at what the administration actually does."


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