By Ed Brennen
When state Rep. Michael Finn was named chair of the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change earlier this year, two of the first people he had in his office were Assoc. Prof. Juliette Rooney-Varga and Prof. Mathew Barlow from the university’s Climate Change Initiative.
“I knew that I needed to learn a lot more about the subject, so leaning on experts is always a benefit,” says Finn, a Democrat representing West Springfield.
Building on that meeting, the CCI recently hosted Finn and five other committee members for a roundtable discussion on climate science and policy at University Crossing. More than a dozen faculty members from disciplines such as environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences, public health, economics, political science and plastics engineering shared their expertise and scientific research with legislators.
“If myself or any other members of the committee need information, we want to have you all on speed dial,” Finn told faculty members. “At the end of the day, we need to know our facts in order to make effective, articulate arguments. And you are the ones that are going to help us get there.”
Among the state reps joining Finn was alumnus Jonathan Zlotnik ’12 of Gardner, a Democrat representing part of Worcester County. Zlotnik’s first campaign began in his UML dorm room while he earned his bachelor’s degree in history.
“It’s nice to see the university leading on this,” said Zlotnik, who took courses from two of the CCI members in attendance, Prof. Emeriti Robert Gamache and John Wooding.
Zlotnik cautioned that “any sort of climate change solution that we propose has to factor in economic growth, because that’s really the only way that it’s palatable to me and also to a great number of constituents.”
He pointed out that in 2014, the legislature passed a 5-cent gas tax to help maintain roads, only to see it repealed by voters at the ballot box.
“That demonstrates why it’s important to have community buy-in to any of this,” Zlotnik said.
As CCI director, Rooney-Varga has delivered several climate-related legislative briefings at the State House, most recently in April when she spoke about the negative impacts of wood bioenergy. This was the first time the CCI has hosted the House committee on campus.
“We have an opportunity for climate leadership here in Massachusetts,” said Rooney-Varga, a faculty member in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EEAS). “To the extent that we can support that with science and help inform policy, we want to do that.”
Rooney-Varga led legislators through the En-ROADS Climate Solutions Simulator, which shows how changes in energy and economic policies could affect greenhouse gas emissions and climate outcomes on a global scale.
“This is a great visual tool to educate a lot of folks that may not be paying attention to the issue,” Finn said.
Asst. Prof. Christopher Skinner, who joined EEAS in January, briefed legislators on the increase in heat waves locally and their impact on energy demand and public health. Average temperatures have increased in Boston by 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900, he said, more than double the global average of 1.4 degrees.
“If we continue on this trajectory, we’re looking at 64 days above 90 degrees annually in Boston by the end of this century,” Skinner said.
Barlow, who is currently researching extreme rainfall events in the Northeast as part of a three-year study funded by a $454,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, discussed the rising threat of local flooding and the economic impact.
According to a 2016 climate report, flooding in Boston could affect 85,000 people and $85 billion worth of infrastructure by 2050.
“The good news is that many of the things that we can do to eliminate the future impacts from extreme precipitation and flooding provide multiple benefits immediately,” said Barlow, citing population health, energy costs and transportation efficiency as examples. “It’s not all about sacrifice and gloom and doom.”
State Reps. Denise Provost (D-27th Middlesex), Dylan Fernandes (D-Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket), Brian Murray (D-10th Worcester) and Richard Haggerty (D-30th Middlesex) also participated in the briefing.