Opinion: The House Is Listening to the Wrong People for Climate Solutions

House Environment and Transportation Committee Chairman Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines.

It is a sad time in Maryland, as the major climate bill of the 2021 General Assembly session failed to pass.

The Climate Solutions Now Act, as originally passed in the Senate on March 12, was a strong and multi-faceted solution to the climate crisis in Maryland. The House heavily amended the bill in early April, sat on it until almost the end of session and then passed it and sent it back to the Senate with only days remaining to negotiate the very substantial differences. In the end, the House failed to accept any compromise on the bill and left Marylanders with no real path forward during the most existential and disastrous crisis it has ever faced.

What happened in the House? The chairman of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, Delegate Kumar Barve, has been quoted publicly as being proud of having passed a stronger piece of legislation than the Senate bill.

That conclusion is debatable. The original bill set the greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030 at 60%. Barve’s committee dropped it to 50% by 2030. The provisions in the original bill that attempted to provide energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions in the building sector, one of the major sectors of greenhouse gas production, were taken out.

The provisions for making one new school in each district net zero were taken out. Even the funding source was changed from a secured fund to the general fund, leaving funding for the solution to the vagaries of the budget process.

To be clear, there were things added that were positive, but they do not in any way overtake what was removed. The House bill was much more of a business-as-usual piece of legislation.

Chairman Barve has said that he listened to the scientists who said the 60% target was not achievable. He relied heavily on the Maryland Department of Environment secretary, Ben Grumbles, for that scientific advice.

MDE hardly has a great record of environmental stewardship, much less environmental leadership. The greenhouse gas reduction plan advanced by the agency does not call for significant investments in mass transit and relies on natural gas instead of clean, renewable energy.

According to the Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by two research organizations that specialize in tracking climate action, we need to be between 57% and 63% by 2030. Those are the scientists we should be talking to.

Chairman Barve also said that he was listening to buildings specialists when he removed all the net zero school provisions because they were too expensive. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “Research findings indicate that not only can zero energy schools be designed and built on conventional school budgets, they can cost less. In an integrated design and construction process, the cost of zero energy measures can be offset by, for example, downsizing heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems, reducing both life cycle and first costs.”

Chairman Barve appeared to be listening to NAIOP, a commercial real estate development association, when he removed the other energy efficient building provisions. However, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, such standards have been adopted by the legislature in Washington State and by the city councils in Washington, D.C., New York City and St. Louis. Large savings are generally possible in existing buildings as shown by a federal deep retrofit program that reduced energy use an average of 38% as part of building renovations.

Chairman Barve also removed the funding from the bill that came from the Strategic Energy Investment Fund and replaced it with funding from the general fund, saying that he was morally outraged that the bill could theoretically take money away from low-income residents for energy efficiency. The Senate Budget and Taxation Committee did not come to the same conclusion, but since Chairman Barve was so outraged, he could have simply fixed the way the funding in the SEIF worked with a few words.

Finally, Chairman Barve said he was listening to the advocates, who liked what he did to the bill. He was apparently listening to the environmental lobbyists. He was not listening to the tens of thousands of constituent activists who were barraging the House with emails, phone calls, tweets and Facebook posts saying how upset they were at the bill or to the youths of Sunrise who came out to Annapolis to protest.

During this whole process, the House was listening to all the wrong people. Given the nature of the crisis we face, the loss of the Climate Solutions Now Act is a profound failure. We applaud the Senate for bringing such a powerful and forward thinking bill and hope the House will take this crisis seriously and start listening to the scientists. And their constituents.

— CECILIA PLANTE

The writer is co-chair of the Maryland Legislative Coalition and chair of MLC Climate Justice Wing.