Messages to the Future

Trisha Shrum at COP 21 in Paris

“You are not yet a year old. And I love you dearly. And I wanted to write you a letter to open in 50 years.” So begins a heartfelt letter from Trisha Shrum to her daughter Eleanor. The letter is more than a proclamation of love; it is an attempt to take climate change—an apathy inducing problem of unimaginable scale—and make it real, and personal, by relating it to her child.

As an academic studying environmental science and behavioral economics at Yale, Harvard and now the University of Colorado, Trisha has been investigating climate change issues and policy for over 10 years. Her academic background and the perspective that comes from being a new parent provided the tinder for an idea sparked by the words of Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Trisha writes of Figueres, “She said that future generations will look back on us and be shocked that we knew what climate change would likely entail and we didn’t do anything to stop it.”

The idea that emerged was to have people send messages to their descendants about the actions they were taking (or not) to address climate change. Trisha wrote to Eleanor, “If every person alive today wrote a letter to their children or grandchildren about their position and action on climate change, then we just might get somewhere. So I’m going to start with me and you.”

Trisha wrote that first letter and worked with co-founder Jill Kubit to build DearTomorrow, a project dedicated to making climate change personal by motivating people to write letters and create photo and video messages to loved ones in the future. They now have hundreds of letters and photos on their website. These are messages of love, concern and hope; messages meant to encourage action and help their authors and creators see climate change from a new perspective.

Trisha finished that first letter to her daughter with these words: “For you and for everyone else, I will try harder.”

And she has.

Explore existing letters and create your own message to the future by visiting

Paris and the GWSA: Resetting our Targets

The Paris Agreement
The recent Paris Agreement represents tremendous progress in the fight against climate change; countries around the world have agreed to take real action to limit warming to no more than 2°C (3.6°F) while making efforts to keep warming below 1.5°C (2.7°F). The 1.5°C goal is important; the mantra “1.5 to stay alive” started with small island nations that understand 2°C means disaster for low-lying countries. 2°C may also spell disaster for coastal cities like Miami and New Orleans, where rising seas associated with 2°C warming would inundate these cities by 2100. In short, the 2°C goal is inadequate to protect vulnerable communities from climate change—or as Naomi Klein writes, “It’s a target that is beyond reckless.”

The Paris Agreement is progress, but analysis of the non-binding nationally determined contributions (NDCs) made by each country as part of the Agreement shows they are insufficient; the NDCs on their own would leave us with warming of 3.5°C (6.3°F) by 2100. COP21 brought the world together to take action, but it’s not yet enough.

Climate Interactive—a non-profit run by Systems Dynamics experts associated with MIT—has modeled various global greenhouse gas (GHG) emission scenarios and outlined 2030 emission reduction requirements for both the 1.5°C and 2°C thresholds. 2030 is a critical date from a climate perspective; if we don’t cut emissions sufficiently by this point, taking the action necessary to curb emissions will become prohibitively difficult. Analysis from Climate Interactive shows the U.S. must reduce emissions by 60% from 2005 levels by 2030 to keep warming to 1.5°C, with a 45% reduction required if we’re willing to take our chances with 2°C. Current U.S. pledges aim for emission reductions of 26% by 2025, far from either target.

Massachusetts Goals Lacking
What does this mean for Massachusetts? If we look to our current (and legally binding) Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) emission reduction targets, we find they are not sufficient to meet either the 1.5°C or even the 2°C national targets. Although no firm 2030 GWSA target has yet been set, a recent bill passed by the state senate aims to set a “firm” 2030 reduction goal of 35-45% from 1990 levels. The high end of this range would keep Massachusetts in-line with the 2°C Climate Interactive targets—if the state attempts to reach it. The Climate Interactive reduction targets for 2°C and 1.5°C normalized to the GWSA 1990 baseline are 44.13% and 59.37% respectively.1

GWSA_2030_goalsComparison of a potential Massachusetts GWSA 2030 target with Climate Interactive requirements

The good news is that the outer range of the 2030 proposal for the GWSA is nearly sufficient to meet the 2°C target. The bad news is that Massachusetts is efficient, environmentally progressive and has tremendous offshore wind potential that has yet to be tapped. If a state like Massachusetts can’t hit the 1.5°C reduction target for 2030 or even the 2°C target with certainty, how can we expect other states to do it?

A New Goal for 2030
Massachusetts should take the bold and necessary step of setting a goal for 2030 commensurate with the need: a 60% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (using the GWSA 1990 baseline) by 2030. Anything less and we resign ourselves to 2°C warming—at best. Insufficient Massachusetts goals alone won’t push the U.S. over national emission limits, but this is an issue of commons. If every state limits its actions and goals to those that appear politically feasible, we have little hope of keeping warming below even 2°C without federal regulation. And hoping for federal intervention is not an ideal contingency plan given the partisanship and proliferation of science doubters and deniers in Congress. States like Massachusetts must lead.

A strong 2030 emission goal for Massachusetts is an opportunity—a chance to boost the economy, create jobs and improve resiliency by generating electricity with regional renewable resources and improving the efficiency of our building and transportation sectors. A study by Synapse Energy Economics modelled policies required to reach a 40% reduction of emissions by 2030 for states that participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). These policies resulted in lower energy costs and thousands of new jobs for participating states. A 60% reduction will almost certainly yield greater economic benefits, but this scenario needs to be modelled in order to demonstrate feasibility and a path to implementation. We must show that not only is a 60% reduction goal necessary, it’s possible and beneficial.


1 Note: the 1990 and 2005 emissions baselines for Massachusetts are relatively close (94.5 and 96 MMT). Please see the 2015 update of the Clean Energy and Climate Plan for more details:

Strange Days

These are strange days in Massachusetts. A state known for its environmental leadership, we now argue over solar caps and net-metering rates while solar projects are shuttered or put on hold. We debate the merits of forcing electricity ratepayers (you and me) to pay $8 billion to construct natural gas pipelines, while new research from Harvard suggests the U.S. is responsible for a huge spike in global Methane emissions—with fracking the likely culprit. We consider the environmental and economic impacts of importing hydro electricity from Canada, while our own offshore wind resources —labeled the “Saudi Arabia of wind”—remain unutilized.

It appears some state policy proposals are based on economics that ignore or don’t properly weigh social or environmental costs, benefits and limits. There’s a continued focus on near-term concerns, while the long-term consequences of policy action (or inaction) are overlooked or discounted. We need to move beyond the short-term, beyond narrowly focused financial considerations.

There is hope. Many political leaders in the state want energy legislation that will benefit the commonwealth and fight climate change. We see this in the letter signed by 100 State Representatives advocating for a balanced, sensible approach to solar legislation: fair net-metering compensation, subsidy reform via the SREC program and grandfathering of existing systems.

This is good news. Let’s hope more Massachusetts political leaders act on their own beliefs, and not those of the utilities and fossil fuel industry.

Author’s note: This post is based on a letter I wrote for the Massachusetts Sierra Club as chair of the Greater Boston Group.

Man walking on a pipeline

The False Promise of Natural Gas

I read an interesting opinion piece in Commonwealth by Anthony Buxton and Benjamin Borowski, where the authors outline their arguments for expanding natural gas pipelines here in Massachusetts. On the surface they make a convincing case, but their analysis is one-dimensional. The piece can be summed up in a single sentence: Heating with oil is expensive and harms the environment, so we should expand pipeline capacity and convert more homes to natural gas.

Let’s look at a few of the arguments made in detail.

Oil is more expensive than natural gas

This is a fact — oil is more expensive than natural gas today, but that is a weak argument for building the Kinder Morgan (Northeast Energy Direct) and Spectra pipelines. Changes to fossil fuel prices fluctuate over time based on supply, demand and external factors that impact energy markets. The prices we pay for oil and natural gas are in fact low, as they don’t account for the environmental costs of extracting and burning fossil fuels. In a perfect market, these externalities would be factored into our energy prices (which is what a price on carbon attempts to do).

Will we continue to see low natural gas prices in Massachusetts? In the short-term, the answer appears to be yes. In the long-term, this is far less certain. Analysis from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects that the U.S. will be a net exporter of natural gas by 2017. This will almost certainly lead to higher domestic natural gas prices as gas is exported to meet global demand. How much of an impact will we see? Australia has recently seen natural gas prices triple because of increased demand resulting from exports.

We’re harming the environment by heating with oil

This is also true. Unfortunately, there’s virtually no way to heat your home in Massachusetts without some adverse impact to the environment (solar and wind have minimal impact, but are not harmless). Burning oil and natural gas releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Natural gas releases approximately 116 pounds of CO2 per British Thermal Unit (BTU) consumed, while oil releases 161 pounds. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story from a climate perspective. The extraction and transmission of natural gas also releases methane (CH4), a potent Greenhouse gas (GHG). Although methane only remains in the atmosphere for about 12 years, its global warming potential is 28-30 times that of CO2.

The natural gas that would flow through these pipelines would be imported from Appalachia, where gas is extracted via hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking). Not only does fracking cause groundwater contamination and earthquakes, the process itself results in the release of a great deal of methane. Some scientists believe that using fracked natural gas is actually worse for the climate than coal, never mind oil. What we know with certainty is that moving from oil to natural gas for environmental reasons is a false promise. There is no “bridge fuel” and we should not waste our time and resources moving from one fossil fuel to another.

The high cost of oil heat has an adverse impact on low-income families

This is also true, and also tells just part of the story. The high price of anything that is required to meet our basic needs adversely impacts low-income families. The solution to this problem is not subsidizing conversions from oil to gas for low-income families, which will only exacerbate our natural gas capacity issues. What should we do then? Let’s take the money needed to do these conversions and some of the $7 billion required to build the pipelines and invest in weatherization work and deep energy retrofits to the homes of low-income families. When the work is complete, these homes will be more comfortable, more valuable, and will cost very little to heat and cool. Importantly, this effort will also reduce our GHG emissions, which is something that won’t happen by shuffling from oil to natural gas.

Gas demand is already greater than pipeline capacity, therefore we need bigger pipelines

Demand does exceed supply on a handful of days in the winter, but simply expanding natural gas capacity to resolve this issue is a misguided solution. Attorney General Maura Healey’s office is working on an analysis of our regional energy requirements and the need for new gas capacity. This analysis is especially important given the recent forecast from ISO New England that predicts no new growth in total electricity consumption over the next 10 years. Per ISO New England, this incredible forecast is the result of solar installations and energy efficiency efforts.

Renewable energy and energy efficiency are just some of the tools that can be used to address peak demand. Energy storage, time-of-use electricity pricing and demand-response can also help us meet or reduce demand during periods of peak load. Expanding natural gas pipelines is a lazy solution to the capacity issues that we created, and it’s one that ignores resiliency, the local environment, and climate change. We can and must do better.

Bottom Line

Don’t believe the false promise of natural gas. Moving from oil to gas is not going to solve any environmental or economic problems. Instead it will weaken us, as all of our energy eggs will be in one basket (or rather pipeline). What happens if the pipelines or transfer stations that bring gas into the state are rendered inoperable from some type of natural (or unnatural) disaster? What if this happens in the middle of winter? Diversification of the fuels we use to heat our homes and generate electricity provides resiliency.

I’m not a proponent of oil. I work in the energy efficiency industry and believe climate change is one of the most important and challenging issues humans have ever faced. I’m looking at the pipeline issue with the mindset of an environmentalist and systems analyst, and in my opinion we can’t waste our time shifting from one fossil fuel to another. We need to focus on energy efficiency and moving to clean, renewable energy sources.