Action You Can Take This Week: Tackling Transportation Emissions

Consider attending or submitting comments through the state’s upcoming listening sessions on how we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation will be hosting public listening sessions to discuss solutions to this challenge.

Photo credit: Kevin Payravi

Massachusetts is currently on track to meet emission reduction limits of 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, but progress to date has been largely driven by reductions in the power sector. The transportation sector now represents the largest share (40%) of statewide emissions, and further reductions are needed to meet our long-term emissions reduction goals.

Learn more and see all the listening session dates here.

Action You Can Take This Week: Support Clean Power

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt said Monday he will issue a new set of rules overriding the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s initiative to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has pledged to sue the Trump administration over this move, saying the decision violates the law and imperils the future of the planet. You can email or call Attorney General Healey’s office at (617) 727-2200 to let her know you support this important action!

Setting a Land Protection Precedent

This past winter, Mass Audubon joined onto an amicus brief filed with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in the case of Smith v. Westfield in support of open space protection under Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution. After hearing the case, the SJC has ruled in our favor that such lands are protected under Article 97.

The case involved proposed conversion of parkland (the John A. Sullivan Memorial Playground in Westfield) for a school construction project, and had broad implications for clarifying whether or not parcels of land that communities have dedicated to conservation or recreation purposes, but may not be explicitly limited to such uses in the registry of deeds, are actually protected under Article 97. Local citizens challenged the project and Mass Audubon joined The Trustees, who filed the amicus, and the Mass Land Trust Coalition in taking this action.

The Boston Common is a compelling example of public parkland not explicitly deeded as such. Photo credit: Abhi Suryawanshi

This week, the SJC ruled that such lands are protected under Article 97. In its opinion, the Court ruled that (emphasis in bold is our own):

Article 97 … provides that “[l]ands and easements taken or acquired” for conservation purposes “shall not be used for other purposes or otherwise disposed of” without the approval of a two-thirds roll call vote of each branch of the Legislature. The issue on appeal is whether a proposed change in use of municipal parkland may be governed by art. 97 where the land was not taken by eminent domain and where there is no restriction recorded in the registry of deeds that limits its use to conservation or recreational purposes. We conclude that there are circumstances where municipal parkland may be protected by art. 97 without any such recorded restriction, provided the land has been dedicated as a public park. A city or town dedicates land as a public park where there is a clear and unequivocal intent to dedicate the land permanently as a public park and where the public accepts such use by actually using the land as a public park. Because the municipal land at issue in this case has been dedicated as a public park, we conclude that it is protected by art. 97.

This decision re-emphasizes the importance of Article 97 and the public value of open space, and it complements the New England Forestry Foundation vs. Town of Hawley case in which Mass Audubon and The Nature Conservancy also filed an amicus (Dec. 2013) with the SJC. These decisions help establish a strong precedent for the protection of open space from both taxation and change of use without a legislative vote.

Learning from Harvey, Irma, Jose & Maria

by Jack Clarke and Christina Wiseman

We’ve been keeping the victims and everyone still reeling from the impacts of the hurricanes that battered Texas, the Southeastern US, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in our thoughts. The past few weeks’ events are also a reminder that as a coastal state, Massachusetts is at risk of flooding both from extreme storms and sea level rise. Mayor Marty Walsh recently said in an interview that “If we got hit with a storm like this, if Harvey hit Boston Harbor, we’re wiped out as a city.” We need to take time to learn how we as a state and nation can be better prepared for the climate change-induced impacts of super storms.

The unusual strength of recent storms such as Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria are most likely tied to our warming climate. Higher sea levels, along with warmer ocean surface temperatures in the Atlantic where these storms formed, helped to intensify these hurricanes by increasing wind speed and by allowing the air to hold more water which eventually fell as rain. Learn more about the latest science on the links between climate change and hurricanes here.

Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico

How we develop land can affect the impacts we see from extreme weather events. In the case of the Houston, many areas that were once covered in prairie grass – which naturally absorbed stormwater – have been paved over. Now when rain falls on the impervious paved surfaces, it becomes runoff that can flood homes and roadways. Affordable and effective alternatives such as Low Impact Development work with nature rather than against it, incorporating features like rain gardens to soak up stormwater and pollution.

Mass Audubon’s climate change adaptation legislation would be a first step in making sure we’re ready for future storms by requiring the state to work with cities and towns to identify and prepare for the impacts of climate change. It’s going to take a combination of local, state, and federal-level actions to prepare for and respond to extreme weather events, which are only expected to increase in the future. Making the right decisions now can help avert some of the worst impacts of these disasters.

Action You Can Take This Week – Renewable Portfolio Standards

This week at the State House, proposed legislation to update Massachusetts’ Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) is up for a hearing.

The Massachusetts RPS drives clean energy development by requiring utilities and other electricity suppliers to buy an increasing percentage of local “Class 1” renewable energy each year. Currently, the RPS increases by 1% each year, but we need to take bolder action to satisfy the state’s Global Warming Solutions Act requirements and help reduce emissions to avoid the worse impacts of climate change.

Our friends at Mass Energy have put together a helpful page on how you can contact your legislators in support of legislation that could increase the RPS by 3% per year – learn more.

Federal Report Confirms Human-Induced Climate Change

by Daniel Brown

A draft report by scientists from 13 federal agencies concludes, unequivocally, that Americans are already feeling the effects of climate change and that human activity is the cause.

The Climate Science Special Report, currently in final draft form, will guide the Fourth National Climate Assessment. The National Climate Assessment is a comprehensive report required by law every four years that describes where the nation stands in regard to climate change. This drafts of the Climate Science Special Report was previously made available for public review and was re-released  to the New York Times and other news outlets earlier this month amidst fears by scientists that the Trump Administration would change or suppress the report.

Following those concerns, the Trump administration announced it was disbanding a federal advisory committee on climate change. That advisory committee would have made recommendations to government agencies based on the scientific findings of the National Climate Assessment.

The report confirms the widely-known fact that human activity has been responsible for climate change.

It’s unlikely the dismantling of the advisory team will hinder the completion of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, but it will make it harder for federal agencies to take actions based on the assessment. It could also make it more challenging for federal agencies to coordinate their efforts.

Along with recent rollbacks to Obama-era infrastructure guidelines that help communities cope with the risks of climate change, these steps by the Trump administration fit a pattern of ignoring climate scientists’ research and recommendations.

The administration could create even more obstacles to climate action in the near future. State and local governments, universities, and nonprofits will need to increase their efforts to follow the sound guidance of federal climate scientists and improve awareness of climate change in their communities.

Daniel Brown is Mass Audubon’s Climate Change Program Coordinator

Executive Order Puts Coastal Areas at Risk

Last week, President Trump signed an Executive Order (EO) aimed at streamlining environmental permitting regulations for major infrastructure projects such as highways and utility corridors. The EO included a revocation of a national standard requiring that federally-funded projects built in floodplains take into consideration future flood risk.

Environmental review is a major component of transportation and other infrastructure projects, which require multiple federal and state permits and reviews. These environmental reviews were borne out of public concern over destructive highway projects across the nation that damaged environmental and cultural resources. Over the past decades, federal agencies have been tasked with making the environmental review process efficient and timely (see here and here).  It is unclear the extent to which President Trump’s EO will clash with existing laws, policies, and regulations; however, it is clear that it prioritizes industry over the health and safety of citizens.

Photo credit: Aislinn Dewey

The now-repealed federal standard – known as the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, or FFRMS – ensured that federally-funded projects built in floodplains would live out their intended lifespan while protecting public health and safety. The FFRMS encouraged the use of nature-based approaches to addressing flood risks by promoting green infrastructure (systems and features engineered to mimic natural processes) as a viable tool in mitigating flood risk and building resilience. It gave flexibility to project proponents, allowing them to choose from a suite of options in order to meet the requirements of the new standard.

For many coastal cities grappling with the impacts of coastal flooding this action ignores the reality of climate change and leaves millions – including Massachusetts residents — at risk. This backslide at the federal level makes it more important than ever for the Massachusetts legislature to pass our comprehensive adaptation management plan bill.

Mass Audubon Receives Grant to Help Communities Restore Water Quality

Our Shaping the Future of Your Community program has received a grant from the Foundation for MetroWest to help communities protect and restore natural water balance and water quality through resilient landscapes. This work will focus on the MetroWest region of Massachusetts, which is experiencing climate change through more intense storm events punctuated by increased frequency of droughts – impacts that are only expected to worsen in the future. Events like these contribute to increased floods, erosion, and water pollution as well as periods of low or no flow in streams, which can stress fish and other aquatic life.

The impacts are amplified when we cover forests and fields that soak up and filter water with impervious surfaces, like sprawling developments and wide roads, that create water runoff that carries pollution into our waterways.

The Assabet River in Hudson, MA. Photo credit: John Phelan

We will introduce public and municipal officials to a more natural approach to land management through Low Impact Development (LID) and native plants. The project will demonstrate how local decisions can restore the water cycle and water quality while providing an attractive, high-quality landscape and improving climate resilience for current and future generations. The goal is to increase awareness and adoption of these cost-effective and practical techniques.

Our water resources are increasingly stressed, but conserving and restoring the natural landscape with native plants can offer social, environmental, and economic benefits.

 

Established in 1995, the Foundation for MetroWest is the only community foundation serving the 33 cities and towns in the region. The Foundation promotes philanthropy in the region, helps donors maximize the impact of their local giving, serve as a resource for local nonprofits and enhance the quality of life for all our residents. Since inception, the Foundation has granted $11.6 million to charitable organizations and currently stewards more than $15 million in charitable assets for current needs and future impact. 

Making Communities More Resilient

Work on the Massachusetts Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan kicked off last week with a meeting for stakeholders, where attendees heard presentations from state officials and from climate scientists from the Northeast Climate Science Center.

During the meeting, participants provided feedback and asked questions about climate-related variables and vulnerabilities. The discussion was lively, focusing on a number of key issues related to both climate adaptation and hazard mitigation. Topics included extreme precipitation, flood risk, and public health, among others. New resources for communities’ use as they begin planning for the impacts of climate change will be also available through the project website. The meeting was hosted by the Mass Emergency Management Agency, the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, and the State Plan Project Management Team, and was held at the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife headquarters in Westborough.

Installing rain gardens is a simple way for communities to reduce stormwater runoff.

Mass Audubon supports this administrative effort to develop a statewide climate action plan as a first step toward a comprehensive adaptation program, which we hope to see implemented through our priority legislation.

Presenters at the meeting also outlined how the statewide adaptation plan will work with the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) Program to foster climate adaptation practices at the local level. Mass Audubon is participating in the MVP program, with several staff members approved to receive training as as MVP-certified providers. Our Shaping the Future of Your Community program also offer resources for use in local resiliency planning, including an easy-to-use mapping tool and information on sustainable, low-impact development.

The state’s MVP program will provide support for municipalities across the Commonwealth to plan for climate resiliency, and providers will be trained to provide technical assistance to communities to complete vulnerability assessments and develop action-oriented resiliency plans.

Action You Can Take This Week – Water Protections Under Threat

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been ordered by the President to repeal a rule that defines wetlands and waterways protected nationwide under the Clean Water Act.

The “Waters of the United States” rule, issued in 2015, was developed following extensive scientific and public input.  Under the guise of returning power to the states, this repeal would eliminate protection for up to 60% of streams and wetlands, including areas that contribute to water supplies for 117 million people.

Photo credit: Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration

The EPA has opened a 30-day public comment period on the proposed repeal. Mass Audubon is submitting comments, and you can too. Ask EPA to keep protections in place for these streams and wetlands that are vital to both people and wildlife.

Water does not follow state boundaries. It is one of our most fundamental natural resources and must be protected, from headwater streams and vernal pools to main stem rivers and the ocean.