BOSTON (SHNS) – After seeing it sidelined this spring by the COVID-19 pandemic, health and political leaders on Monday came together to stress the time-sensitivity of addressing climate change, noting that public health and environmental policy cannot be divorced.
The pandemic pushed many policy debates that had been front-and-center on Beacon Hill to the back of the line in March, but lawmakers have slowly returned their attention to previous priorities.
House and Senate leaders since late July have been negotiating major climate legislation (S 2500 / H 4933) that would commit Massachusetts to a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and Gov. Charlie Baker has urged legislators to make it one of the policy objectives they finish this year.
“The urgency of our response must match the urgency of the problem,” Baker said in a recorded message played Monday at the start of a Zoom talk on climate change and health equity. The governor mentioned the $44 million in his administration has invested in climate change mitigation projects through the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, which now has a 90 percent participation rate with 312 cities and towns joining.
The governor also said the regional Transportation Climate Initiative – a developing, multi-state cap-and-trade program for vehicle emissions – is a critical part of his administration’s efforts to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Tackling transportation emissions will be crucial to mitigating the health impacts of climate change,” Baker said.
The conversation was hosted by The Boston Globe and Biogen, which recently announced a $250 million commitment to making the company fossil fuel free by 2040.
Michel Vounatsos, the CEO of Biogen, said the company could no longer be built around the concept of saving lives and contribute to the pollution that is shortening lifespans, which is why he said Biogen decided that going carbon neutral in 2014 was not enough.
“Climate health and equity are intertwined and unfortunately we are not tracking well as a world,” Vounatsos said.
The panel discussion, which was moderated by Globe managing director Linda Henry, focused partly on the health impacts of climate change and how the pandemic has exposed inequities that existed before COVID-19.
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a Boston Children’s Hospital pediatrician and interim director of C-Change at Harvard University, said he’s treated children with COVID-19.
“A lot of those children are the same children I would see for asthma,” he said.
Bernstein said that in order to motivate people to support the type of actions that will be required to stave off devastating climate change, leaders need to use the science to show real-world effects.
“We have to make climate change an issue that matters to people in their day-to-day lives,” Bernstein said, suggesting that air pollution is something that most people can understand. “We need to start showing how actions we take are climate solutions, they’re health solutions that will prevent diseases.”
He also discussed the recent decision by the city of Boston to pause its plan to remove mature trees along Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury to make more lanes for traffic.
“The idea in Melnea Cass to take out trees and to make more room for cars is, in my view, running in the wrong direction,” Bernstein said.
Kate Walsh, the CEO of Boston Medical Center, said her hospital will miss its goal of becoming carbon neutral in 2020, but she discussed ways the center has approached its carbon footprint, including its use of a cogeneration plant for heat and electricity that saves $1.5 million in energy costs a year and the rooftop garden that generates 5,000 pounds a food a year for hospital workers and patients.
“If Boston Medical Center can figure this out, everyone can, and everyone should,” Walsh said.
Environmental League of Massachusetts President Elizabeth Turnbull Henry said both of the bills currently in conference committee in the Legislature were “quite ambitious,” and urged people to call their legislators to build pressure for action.
“We need that bill to be a strategic, data-driven pathway to create a net-zero economy by 2050,” said Turnbull Henry.
Asked by Linda Henry about the national election debate about saving the coal industry, Turnbull Henry, a West Virginia native, said that there are only 60,000 coal jobs left in the country compared to 100,000 clean energy jobs in Massachusetts.
“Clean energy could be the workhorse of our economic recovery,” she said.
Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said the Baker administration’s executive action to set a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050 “puts us on the right side of the science.”
“I think one of the things that we have a real opportunity for at the state scale is working with our cities and towns to deploy climate solutions in an equitable way and in a cost effective way,” Theoharides said.
Eugenia Gibbons, president of Health Care Without Harm, and Mindy Lubber, the CEO of Ceres, said hospitals and corporations, including large companies like Apple and Walmart, are showing that there can be economic incentives to going green as well.
Lubber said customers want to shop at companies that are driven by values, not just profits, and young professionals want to work at those companies.
“Science has told us the time to act is now and at a scale and a pace far greater than anything we’ve seen,” Lubber said.