The debate on greenhouse gas emissions: Science is clear, but political path forward isn’t

By: - October 29, 2021 6:00 am
Parched land under a blue sky

The scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change is almost at 100 percent, an October 2021 analysis of 3,000 peer-reviewed papers found. (Getty Images)

On Tuesday, a group of lawmakers had a heated debate over a bill that would establish goals for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create a climate action plan.

New Hampshire is the only New England state that hasn’t established a goal for reducing emissions, which is a problem, according to some environmental organizations in the state.

“We have a host of statutes that get at certain parts of emissions reductions,” said Jim O’Brien, the director of external affairs at The Nature Conservancy. “But none of these pieces of statute are tied into what is the larger goal the state is driving towards.”

That’s why O’Brien supports House Bill 172, which would create a climate goal for the state. The bill was retained in committee last session, and now the House Science, Technology, and Energy Committee is charged with recommending whether it should move forward this upcoming session. Ultimately, the committee recommended killing the bill in an 11-10 vote that fell along party lines.

Republican lawmakers argued against setting a goal they said would harm the state’s economy, and some questioned the validity of the climate change science even though the scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change is almost at 100 percent, an October 2021 analysis of 3,000 peer-reviewed papers found.

“These are arguments that we’ve heard for years here in New Hampshire, that have stalled progress, but the science is pretty clear,” O’Brien said.

Other environmental groups in the state agreed that the recommendation was a letdown.

“It is disappointing that the committee leadership is talking in circles about the existence of the climate crisis when the data clearly tells us that extreme storm events are wreaking havoc on our country,” said Catherine Corkery in an email. Corkery is the chapter director of New Hampshire’s Sierra Club.

On the other side of the debate, Democrats said tackling climate change in the state is a moral obligation and pointed to the consequences that inaction now will have on future generations. Some took issue with the claim that reducing fossil fuels would harm the economy and pointed instead to the economic benefit of shifting away from imported fossil fuels.

“The economics are in our favor,” said Rep. Lee Oxenham, a Plainfield Democrat. “Solar, wind, and hydro now cost less than fossil fuels and are local sources of energy. We can continue to keep more of $6 billion exported to purchase fossil fuels.”

“I beg you to support this bill,” she said.

Rep. Jacqueline Chretien, a Manchester Democrat, repeated that plea: “I just beg you to stop delaying, stop deferring. The science is clear; we need to act.”

O’Brien said inaction also comes with an economic cost, pointing to policy in neighboring states that has allowed the clean energy sector to grow, outpacing New Hampshire.

“It feels that New Hampshire is behind the ball in this field,” he said. “It feels like we’re missing out as a state.”

And he said neighboring states that have taken action haven’t seen the economic hit feared by Republicans, including Rep. Fred Plett of Goffstown, who said that an aggressive climate plan would be a “disaster” for the state’s economy.

O’Brien said, “We see GDP and job growth in states that are taking these actions.” Massachusetts, the only state to have a legally binding greenhouse gas reduction goal, had GDP growth of 7.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, outpacing the national growth rate of 4 percent in that quarter. The Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management found that climate action would have “a negligible impact on the region’s economy.”

“In most scenarios analyzed, there was a small positive impact on employment levels, while impacts on gross state product growth were essentially zero,” according to a 2018 white paper the organization released.

And, it doesn’t cost anything to set a goal, O’Brien said. Even if the goal isn’t enforceable, it would be a signal of stability – something that could attract developers.

“New Hampshire hasn’t put out the welcome sign to those businesses,” he said.

Similar efforts have had bipartisan support recently, such as Senate Bill 590, which was introduced in 2020 and aimed to set up a study commission to look at setting such a goal. After the pandemic hit in March, the legislation was put on pause, but an ad hoc commission was formed anyway to look at the issue. Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, was on that commission, along with a total of 30 commission members, including lawmakers, state employees, and representatives from utilities. The commission met five times by Zoom and released a final report containing their findings.

The commission looked at the public health impact and found that it would worsen as climate change progresses.

“A consistent theme among the data presented at each meeting was that greenhouse gas emissions pose significant threats to public health, both directly and indirectly through increasing temperature,” according to the report. “Health effects include increases in emergency room visits for asthma, heat stress, and renal disease, as well as an increase in deaths even at moderate heat index values.”

In the committee meeting on Tuesday, Democrats argued that the worst impact would be felt by the next generation.

“I’m a grandparent, and I take this personally,” said Rep. John Mann, an Alstead Democrat. “My kids and your kids, if you have any, have to live in the future. I’m 82 so I don’t care about the future, but I think we should grow up and stand up to our responsibilities.”

Republicans remained unconvinced. “It may be necessary to do something at a future date when we understand this better,” said Epping Republican Michael Vose, the committee chairman. 

But, he said, now is not the time.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.