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A tense climate

When the highest-ranking official overseeing climate change policy for the state of Massachusetts was forced to resign last week, it represented an effort by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration to put an end to a widening controversy.

David Ismay, who served as undersecretary for climate change at the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, was forced to step down following the release of a video of him making a series of inappropriate and troubling remarks while participating in a virtual policy forum with the Vermont Climate Council.

Yet, contrary to the notion that the forced resignation of Ismay would quiet the numerous arguments surrounding the direction the state’s climate change policies are headed, specifically through a climate change bill now pending on Beacon Hill, the exposure of his condescending, if not outright hostile attitude toward the average Massachusetts resident, has only served to intensify the scrutiny and debate over the state’s climate goals.

Ismay was seen saying things like “we have to put the screws to them” and “we have to break their will,” in referring to the homeowner, the motorist, even the senior citizen on a fixed income, who, in his view, must be confronted with policies, taxes and fees that will force them to drastically reduce their consumption of heat for their homes, air conditioning, electricity, car gas and so on.

Paul Diego Craney, spokesman for the watchdog organization for fiscal responsibility and government accountability, Mass Fiscal Alliance, who led the calls for Ismay’s dismissal, told me the comments reveal a view common among some in the climate policy ranks who believe that forcing a change in human and consumer behavior, one way or another, must be done to meet their core goal of eliminating fossil fuels altogether.

Craney pointed out Ismay “did not use the jargon they are practiced at using or supposed to use,” in those types of discussions.

In other words, the reality that certain climate policies will adversely impact average people is not normally stated in public forums and most officials certainly don’t discuss it in the way Ismay did. But in this instance, Ismay was “talking with his inside voice,” as Craney stated, and it just slipped out.

A contentious component of the climate legislation now pending calls for fully eliminating fossil fuels specifically for home heating purposes to reach net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050 in the state. The debate is not about accepting the need for addressing climate change, rather the real conflict seems to lay in how to achieve the right balance between emission reduction targets and meeting the real life energy, heat and fuel needs of over six million people.

Those with decades of experience in the power generating industries have warned that the irrational insistence that fossil fuel sources for heat and electricity must be fully eliminated, as opposed to dramatically reduced, within the next 20 or 30 years are not realistic.

They’ve also noted the current legislation’s goal to replace gas and oil burners in homes with electric heat pumps is a contradiction considering most electricity generated in Massachusetts (roughly two-thirds) comes from fossil fuel sources.

“I’m not an anti-environmentalist,” Craney emphasizes about the wider goals to reduce the carbon footprint in the state and bring about emission reductions. But he adds, “you have to do more cost-benefit analysis,” when aggressive carbon emission reduction targets are being crafted into law.

The scenes playing out in Texas this week, where rolling blackouts have occurred to cope with a surge in electrical demand stemming from an unusual blast of frigid weather, should be a wake-up call on many fronts. The extreme cold, for a state accustomed to mild winters may well be a symptom of climate change but it’s also revealing the limits of certain green energy sources. Though a large oil producer, Texas in more recent years vastly expanded construction of wind power farms and encouraged electric heat pumps for heating homes. Yet the sudden frigid blast is cranking up electricity demand as the heating pumps go into overdrive and the scenes of frozen wind turbine blades, appearing to be of no use in single-digit temperatures, are demonstrating the limits of relying on that technology as a sole source of power.

Reality-based, responsible climate change policies that can reduce carbon emissions while balancing the need for a diversified energy and fuel source mix that incorporates the wide reach and reliability of today’s advanced biofuels, needs to be pursued. Talk of “putting in the screws” or “breaking the will” of the ordinary, hardworking state resident we can do without.

Donna Perry is a Sun Chronicle columnist and media commentator.