During a summer with more frequent fires and floods, Maryland state lawmakers and environmental advocates are beginning to think about what another climate bill could look like during the next legislative session.
“The longer we observe what’s happening around the nation and the world, the more aggressive we have to be in addressing this,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), the Senate sponsor of Climate Solutions Now Act of 2021, a major climate bill that failed last legislative session.
This summer, many parts of the country experienced higher than average temperatures, especially western United States, which experienced its fourth heat wave in less than two months and had dozens of wildfires burning.
And countries like Germany and China have been ravaged by deadly floods this summer, highlighting how climate change can intensify rainy seasons.
“This is something that we need to be concerned about because we know heat waves are getting worse, more frequent and intense, and think about: Are we prepared enough in Maryland in the event that there should be a concurrent heat wave and power failure?” said Del. Dana Stein (D-Baltimore County), the House sponsor of Climate Solutions Now Act.
During the last legislative session, the Senate and House splintered on major climate legislation, which eventually led to its collapse on the night of Sine Die.
Senators called for a greater greenhouse gas reduction goal — 60% reduction from 2006 levels by 2030 — energy-efficient building codes and net-zero school buildings, while House lawmakers lowered the greenhouse gas reduction goal, altered the green construction provisions and changed the funding streams, contending that the Senate version was unrealistic and hurt poor people.
“I’m still trying to figure out whether it was politics or substance that kept the sides apart,” said Pinsky, chair of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “I think the takeaway is that before the session begins, we have to have a process and a dialogue that is substantive in nature about what practices are the ones we need to pursue.”
Pinsky said that he has been reaching out to expert scientists who work with mitigation adaptation and other stakeholders, but discussions are “only at the exploration level” at this point.
Stein, who sits on an ad hoc group within the Maryland Commission on Climate Change that focuses on developing recommendations for decarbonizing buildings in Maryland, said that he has been spending most of his time working on a bill on energy efficient buildings, especially since the House and Senate splintered the most on the building portion of the Climate Solutions Now bill.
Stein said that he is waiting for the ad hoc group to propose its recommendations, and so has not started working on the substance of bill provisions. The group is scheduled to propose draft recommendations by late September.
Del. Kumar Barve (D-Montgomery), the chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, said that his committee is looking for a proper metric to use for building standards and measuring progress.
“Saying that you have to reduce emissions by 40% is not a useful metric because different buildings are at different states of efficiency,” Barve said. “We have to find a measuring metric that makes a lot of sense — we haven’t quite found that yet, but we will.”
Barve said he is thinking about introducing multiple pieces of legislation rather than one sweeping climate bill because the latter option runs the risk of passing no climate policy at all.
Pinsky said he prefers fewer bills or one bill because “we really have to have a comprehensive approach from the state, rather than a piecemeal approach. Whether it’s clean energy or energy efficiency, they don’t stand apart from each other.”
Leaders from both chambers said they plan to meet with the other chamber in the fall to discuss more specifics on climate legislation for the next General Assembly session.
Environmental advocates are also in the planning process, working with different groups like Energy Foundation to develop a set of platforms and priorities in next year’s climate legislation, said Josh Tulkin, the director of Maryland Sierra Club.
Environmental justice and addressing pollution from the building sector, such as by banning new buildings from getting gas hookups and electrifying more buildings, are the top priorities for advocates, Tulkin continued.
“We’d like to see a much stronger commitment to electrifying all new buildings — government and private buildings,” Tulkin said. “We are seeing more evidence that electrifying buildings is more economical, but we also need a strategy to get off gas without overburdening already overburdened communities.” There is a concern that as more users get off gas, poorer households might get stuck in an increasingly expensive system.
During the 2021 legislative session, it is possible that climate change was pushed to the back burner due to mounting pressure to enact police reforms and address economic pitfalls brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But assuming that the coronavirus will not dominate the next General Assembly session, the urgency to pass ambitious climate legislation should be stronger next year, especially given the cascading effects of climate change this summer.
And the Biden White House has made clear how much the administration is prioritizing climate, Tulkin said. Biden has pledged to reduce U.S. emissions between 50 and 52 percent in 2030 compared with 2005 levels. And the American Jobs Plan includes money to mitigate carbon pollution and invest in research that could spur clean technology.
“We need to make sure that any legislation is reflecting the urgency as well as the politics of the Biden administration, so that means a stronger bill than the Climate Solutions Now Act,” Tulkin said.
Next year is also an election year, which means that lawmakers are under more pressure to show that they are committed to addressing climate change, he continued.
“I think the loss of the Climate Solutions bill last year was an embarrassment. It’s an election year, so this is really the year where the Maryland General Assembly needs to prove that it’s serious about climate,” Tulkin said.