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Mass. Gubernatorial Hopeful Downing Outlines Climate Plan

A bald white man in a button down shirt gestures with his hands in front of a wall with framed pictures and a banner.
Josh Landes
Ben Downing.

Ben Downing is a Berkshire County native who now lives in East Boston. He’s running for governor of Massachusetts in the 2022 election. The former Democratic state senator, who left office to work in the renewable energy sector in 2017, says his plan to address climate change is more aggressive than Republican Governor Charlie Baker’s. Baker has not said whether he will seek a third term. Downing spoke with WAMC about his strategy, which he says addresses the planks of “urgency, equity, innovation, justice and jobs.”

DOWNING: We need to have a clear pathway to 100% clean electricity by 2030, and 100% clean energy by 2040. There are at least a dozen states that in one form or another, along with many municipalities and other levels of government, that have committed to a transition to 100% clean electricity and clean energy. Massachusetts should join those states, and should lead those states in having the most aggressive timetable to do that.

WAMC: How does your plan contrast with that of Governor Charlie Baker?

Under Governor Baker's current plan, and under the most recently signed legislation, there is no requirement that we hit 100% clean energy or clean electricity by 2030, by 2040, by 2050. Net zero is an important goal, but it doesn't do all of the work. It does allow fossil fuels to continue to operate. And I don't think the science of climate allows that to be true. We've got to do better.

Another plank in your climate plan is equity. Break it down for me: how does equity play into climate change, and the response to that that your gubernatorial campaign is backing?

First of the plank is a requirement of 50% of climate spending and benefits directly benefit environmental justice communities, right? We know that communities, especially those majority, black, brown communities, our indigenous and immigrant communities and other people of color have borne the brunt of fossil fuel infrastructure for its entire existence, right? That's where pipelines have been sited. That's where substations and compressor stations have been located. So not only do we need to be better about taking action on those fronts, but we need to make sure that those same communities have direct access to the benefits of a transition to a clean energy economy. You know, it's not enough to build a clean economy that has the same inequality and inequity when it comes to our broader community. We can do far better. Part of the way of doing that is to put a clear commitment in law like New York has, like the Biden administration is seeking to through their climate plan. Massachusetts should commit 50% of our climate spending to directly benefit our environmental justice communities.

Now, you also talk about innovation in your plan. How would that play into the Ben downing vision of climate change responses?

Yeah, so if you look at how our utilities operate, right, the utilities were structured for a world of five or six big power plants, all running on fossil fuels, all that could run all the time, right? We need to find ways not only to bring on more renewables, but to deploy battery storage across the grid and to have the utilities not thinking that the same old infrastructure is always going to be the answer to the problems that they're looking at today are planning for tomorrow. So we would require a complete overhaul and review of the utilities business model and operating to focus not only on climate, but on innovation, and then to hit those earlier goals that we talked about. In particular, the 100% clean energy by 2040 is going to require significant investments in innovation. That’s everything from air source heat pumps, and incentives around the deployment there to micro grid and grid level, geothermal energy. All of that is going to be a significant departure from how utilities operate today. But we should know that, you know, the utilities are chartered to act in the best interest of the communities that they serve. This is another step in that evolution and one that's critically important to building a fairer, stronger Massachusetts.

You’ve talked about how green energy can also bring with it new jobs. How would you create jobs with your climate plan?

So first, we would make a significant new investment in the Mass Clean Energy Center, at least doubling the agency's budget. And in so doing, we would not only be supporting its underlying innovation efforts right now. MassCEC has been sort of the hub of new technologies in Massachusetts, going back to the earlier days of solar, more recently, around energy storage and business models there. We know we're going to have to not only deploy more renewables, but continue to think about new ways to ensure access to renewables across the economic spectrum and to come up with new innovative models for making the overall system work more efficiently, more effectively. Supporting MassCEC is the simplest way to do that. But we need to continue to think about other ways to do it as well.

Can you expand on your declaration to create a climate impact mandate across state government?

Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, at different times in Massachusetts state government, we have taken a more holistic view of climate. Unfortunately, we've lost that over the last six years. And so while you can have the Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, putting forward an ambitious 2050 clean energy and climate plan, you can have the Department of Transportation and the MBTA and the RTA cutting transit services, right? To actually take the steps that we need to take on climate, we all need to be rowing in the same direction, right? And so that will require every secretary and every lever of state government to be thinking about how do their decisions impact the efforts to reduce emissions to achieve our climate goals. And that can be as simple as thinking about old school buildings and how are we using energy efficiency funds there? How are we deploying renewables there to, you know, thinking about long term investments and if it makes sense to invest in upgrades to the existing gas infrastructure, or if the resources would be better used deploying air source heat pumps in those cases. So we need to be thinking about it in absolutely every aspect of state government from housing to education, public safety, all of us need to be thinking about the climate impacts of their mission and then how they can be part of the solution as well.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.