Massachusetts kids win a landmark climate ruling

Living on Earth
Mass. solar panels

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection says it encourages clean energy, such as here at Shaffer Landfill. But a recent lawsuit says the department has not done enough to fulfill a law requiring the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has ruled in favor of four young plaintiffs who claim the state has failed to follow through on laws that require reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The court, in a unanimous decision, ordered the state to stop dragging its feet and implement the law as written.

Brad Campbell, the president of the Conservation Law Foundation, one of the organizations involved in the lawsuit, calls this a “landmark decision.”

“This is another example where the courts have stepped in to make clear that carbon dioxide — greenhouse gases — are a pollutant and a form of pollution that presents an immediate threat to public health and the environment,” Campbell says. “[It] has to be regulated, in this case through declining emissions caps across the economy.”

Massachusetts currently has one of the most progressive greenhouse gas limit laws in the country, Campbell notes. Yet, beginning with the prior governor, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection “simply refused to issue the regulations to implement that law according to its terms and to impose declining emissions caps across a range of sectors.”

“We were of the view that the law was very clear,” Campbell continues. “We got a lot of push back. Essentially, the agency tried to cite a bunch of unrelated regulations that they said constituted compliance with the law, at least one of which was [written] before the law was even enacted. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed with us that the law is mandatory. It’s not just aspirational; it’s not a suggestion or guidance.”

Campbell believes the unanimous decision by the court is significant. “It removes any doubt about what the statute required, and it removes any kind of partisan quality to the decision,” he says. “The decision was written by the most conservative justice on the court — one, for example who dissented on marriage equality. So it's a decision that, I think, will bring all sides together on the need to find common sense solutions that meet the statutory mandate.”

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has embraced the decision and indicated his administration is willing to work with the environmental community on finding a good approach.

The state is currently between 18 and 25 percent short of meeting its emission reduction targets, according to Campbell. At the same time, he says, the technology is available and the solutions are essentially in reach to get the state back on track quickly.

The Conservation Law Foundation has a similar suit pending in Rhode Island, where the state government is attempting to permit a new gas-fired power plant. “That’s typical of the proposals we've seen across New England,” Campbell notes. “It’s really an effort by big coal and big oil to simply shift us from an addiction to one fossil fuel to another.”

“If we're ever going to achieve the climate goals that were articulated in Paris and articulated in state statutes in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, — the climate goals we need simply to maintain a hospitable environment for our children — we can only do it if we say “no” to this new generation of fossil fuel infrastructure and keep on pace to a cleaner energy platform,” Campbell says.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood