Last week I visited Greentown Labs. A cavernous space in Somerville once given over to automobile service and repair, Greentown is home to 70 or so clean energy businesses, start-ups that keep a lid on their costs by sharing everything from prototyping equipment to office rooms to marketing and display space.
Stroll through Greentown and you begin to get a practical sense of what "research and development" means at ground level. You see a legion of youthful Boston-area people tooling away at the complicated transition from oil, coal and natural gas. On the shop floors of Greentown, climate change emerges as both a worldwide existential threat and a local opportunity, since New England's deep bench of scientists, technologists and engineers matches up well against the climate challenges we face.
What could slow down the companies of Greentown? The misleadingly low expense associated with fossil fuels. Pollution from oil, coal and natural gas is killing the planet, but you wouldn't know it from the prices of the products. How can something so dangerous -- so truly expensive -- cost so little, causing all of us to use too much? And what's to be done about the multiple acts of over-consumption baked into the very places in which we live and into the ways by which we get around?
I may be biased, but, for beginners and experts alike, the best discussion I've seen is
Paying for Pollution: Why a Carbon Tax is Good for America, by Gilbert Metcalf. Gib Metcalf teaches economics at Tufts, served Barack Obama as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Energy, and lives in Concord, three choices that reflect well on him.
Paying for Pollution puts Metcalf in the middle of a national debate -- a lively one, if you're an energy nerd -- about the best way to price carbon -- via carbon fees ("revenue-neutral," meaning any money collected is sent back as rebates), carbon taxes ("revenue positive," meaning government puts the money into education, environmental protection, or something else), or cap and trade (either revenue-neutral or revenue-positive, depending on design).
At this point I should mention An
Act to Combat Climate Change,
my latest carbon pricing proposal, now
pending before the 2019-2020 session of the Legislature. For six years I've advocated for a revenue-neutral carbon fee, but my colleagues, especially in the House, have hesitated.
I get it -- hard decisions are, well, hard. But the climate crisis is getting scarier and time's a wastin'.
So I've moved on to Plan B.
If we legislators can't agree to price carbon, we should at least agree to tell the governor to do the job for us.
Under my bill, a chief executive would select any of three main courses -- carbon fees, carbon taxes, or cap and trade -- but he or she could no longer sit around without acting. The Legislature would say, in effect, "Governor, get on with it."
Here's what I think: Once fossil fuel prices are revamped to reflect the real costs they impose on us -- once other forms of energy compete on a level playing field -- the brains of Greentown Labs will do the rest.
Let me know what you think.
-- Senator Mike Barrett