What Mayor Walsh’s annual address didn’t say about global warming


When Mayor Marty Walsh went to the podium to deliver his annual State of the City address, January 2020 was already on course to be one of the hottest Januaries on record in Boston—starting with a string of days in the 40s and 50s. By the following weekend, two consecutive days—both Saturday and Sunday—would see temperatures over 70 F in the middle of a New England winter for only the second time since meteorological records started being kept over 100 years ago. The first year that unheard of situation occurred being 2018. Just two years back.


Meanwhile, Australia continues to be engulfed in wildfires driven by global warming. An abject lesson on the future that awaits us if we don’t bring global carbon emissions down significantly by 2030—just 10 years from now—according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Following the earlier lesson of huge swathes of California burning last summer and fall. And an accelerating range of similarly devastating teachable moments the world over with each passing year.


Walsh covered a lot of ground and made a lot of promises in the course of his remarks. He addressed other major policy areas like housing and education in some detail. But he only spoke one brief line that related to global warming aka climate change without mentioning either term: “We are ranked the number one most energy efficient, climate-friendly city in the United States of America.”


In the written transcript of his speech, that line links to a press release by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE)—a 40-year-old nonprofit with a donors list that includes major foundations, companies that stand to make money from making the US more energy efficient, and a rogue’s gallery of energy utilities. Notably, Boston’s twin energy overlords Eversource (which also has a seat on the organization’s board of directors) and National Grid. 


The release is entitled “US Cities Boost Clean Energy Efforts but Few on Track to Meet Climate Goals” and states that Boston remains the number city on its 2019 City Clean Energy Scorecard


And what does that mean exactly? A look at Boston’s Clean Energy Scorecard indicates that if our city is number one in the horse race in question, then America is in deep trouble in terms of energy efficiency.


Because in speaking of Boston as the best city on the clean energy front in the nation, the scorecard says things like “Boston’s GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions reduction and renewable energy goals provide the vision for its clean energy efforts. ACEEE does not currently project the city will achieve its goal of reducing community-wide GHG emissions 50% by 2030, but we believe it will make substantial progress toward it.” Which is a shame because every nation on Earth needs to reach that kind of target, according to the UN IPCC—and spend huge amounts of money on removing carbon from the atmosphere with technologies that do not yet exist—if we can expect to have a chance of holding the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.


The scorecard also states that “GoBoston 2030 [one of the city’s several snappily named and minimally effectual climate change programs] sets a sustainable transportation vision for the city and adopts a goal of reducing regional vehicle miles traveled 5.5% below 2005 levels by 2020. Boston also aims to reduce transportation-related GHG emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2030.” 


So at a time when Massachusetts traffic from carbon-burning vehicles “has reached a tipping point” where our roads are at maximum capacity for hours every day according to an August 2019 study by the Mass Department of Transportation (an issue Walsh did highlight in his speech), the city of Boston has a “goal” of reducing regional vehicle miles (a number that appears to include commuters from the suburbs and exurbs) by only 5.5% below 2005 levels by this year.


And that apparently hasn’t happened. Which is problematic enough, but here’s the kicker in the scorecard: “Relative to systems in other cities, the transit system is well funded and accessible.”


Meaning relative to the rest of US—which has some of the worst public transportation in the world, with vast tracts of the country lacking so much as an occasional public bus line—the MBTA is decent. The tragically underfunded, impressively mismanaged, and crumbling MBTA is A-OK in the eyes of the scorecard authors.


At this point it’s worth looking at the City of Boston Climate Action Plan 2019 Update, released last October—the latest in a series of breathless city government reports on global warming remediation efforts. And one that has Mayor Walsh’s fingerprints all over it. Given that he’s mentioned 29 times in an 88-page document.


Yet weirdly, he didn’t mention it at all in his State of the City address.


The plan section entitled “Progress Toward Our 2020 Goals” does indeed discuss the “5.5 percent below 2005 vehicle miles traveled (VMT)” goal. So it is a real target. And then says that “Total VMT increased 14 percent while VMT per capita decreased 14 percent between 2005 and 2017.” Meaning that Boston wasn’t on track to hit the target when numbers were last crunched in 2017. Because, and this is something one sees repeatedly in Boston climate reports over the years, city government keeps moving goal posts and kicking cans down the road when it comes to meeting its own targets. It also engages in endless games of comparing apples to oranges when describing targets vs actual results.


For example, reviewing the rest of the “progress” section of the Climate Action Report there are other examples of this kind of chicanery:

2020 target: “15 percent of energy use from cogeneration” 

Achieved to date: “125 megawatts of co-generation [sic] installed through 2018”


What does that mean? The target is clear, 15% of energy use will come from cogeneration by 2020. But what is achieved to date? A specific amount of cogeneration installed through 2018. Great, but what percentage of energy use from cogen is that? We don’t know, but I’m willing to bet the Tobin Bridge that it’s less than 15%. 


Here’s another example from the same section:
2020 target: “7 percent energy use reduction across all BERDO [Building Energy Reporting and Disclosure Ordinance] buildings” 

Achieved to date: “7 percent average energy use reduction across the first cohort of BERDO buildings from 2013 to 2017”


OK, so the first cohort of BERDO buildings is probably not all of those buildings. And “energy use reduction” in the target is not necessarily the same as “average energy use reduction.” So, again, it’s pretty likely the target wasn’t met. Although, in fairness, the failure to meet other 2020 targets is presented in a more straightforward manner in the report.


Which is good, because Boston city government is not meeting many of its own climate change remediation targets. So lying outright would be really bad form. 


However, I think that’s why Marty Walsh didn’t trumpet the city’s ability to meet those targets. Because they’re not being met. Nor did he announce any grand plans to combat the many negative effects of global warming. Because the city doesn’t have any.


Sure, there’s some progress in some areas. Like some commercial properties in the city being made more energy efficient, as just mentioned. That’s a good thing (on the surface, at least), and allowed Walsh to cite Boston’s being number one on the City Clean Energy Scorecard list in his speech. But like most of the other plans (many of which are just plans to plan) and results (many of which are not very encouraging after decoding the weasel words used to mollify the credulous) mentioned in city climate reports, it’s also too little, too late for the Hub to do its part to help humanity to have any chance at all of meeting IPCC targets.


And, as I’ve written repeatedly over the last decade, those city reports generally avoid discussing how Boston is really going to survive the catastrophic destruction that is expected to be visited upon it by global warming-induced sea-level rise and storms and flooding and temperature increases and the accompanying loss of global supply chains (for food and everything else we can’t produce in Boston) over the next 30 years—and for at least a couple of centuries after that. 


There are no plans to build major flood defenses to protect the big chunk of the city that is at or near sea level long enough to move critical infrastructure (like subways and power plants) to higher ground—eventually moving the city into its surrounding hills (itself probably a stopgap measure given that sea-level rise isn’t the only crisis global warming besets us with). And there are no plans to force the major corporations that control the city to do anything of major consequence about global warming remediation. As most necessary actions are designed to be voluntary for them, and special tax levies are seemingly off the table.


Meanwhile, carbon emissions from Logan Airport (the largest airport in New England) and the Mystic Generating Station (that provides much of the Boston area’s power) are not usually included in city projections. Because the former is under federal jurisdiction and the latter is in Everett, not Boston. Allowing the city to claim it’s reducing its emissions via the cheap trick of making some climate targets regional (like traffic), some targets Boston only (like building efficiency), and at least one target (emissions) for Boston minus Logan (and minus the giant Mystic power plant literally on its border).


All told, there’s not much for Boston’s mayor to brag about other than running what one might call the “best city of the worst major industrial nation in kind of sort of starting to think about dealing with meeting an appointment with humanity’s destiny that is only a decade hence.”


So maybe it’s just as well Walsh kept mum on the matter this year.


Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.