Originally published in In These Times on September 16, 2021.
As unprecedented natural disasters ravage the United States, while federal commitments to climate finance have lagged, the Massachusetts legislature is poised to make a statewide commitment to global climate initiatives. A bill winding its way through the Massachusetts House and Senate could make the state the first in the nation to legislate in support of international climate finance — that is, the transfer of money to low-income countries so they can reduce their carbon emissions and respond to threats of climate change.
The legislation would create a voluntary check-off option for Massachusetts residents to donate through their annual tax returns to the Least Developed Countries Fund, a multilateral fund established in 2001 under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to help low-income nations adapt to the climate crisis.
The Biden administration’s commitments to the Green Climate Fund, another multilateral vehicle established by the United Nations in 2010 to finance projects in low-income countries, have fallen far short of what activists say is necessary for the United States to pay its fair share and meet the scale of the global threat. While Biden has promised to restore trust among international partners in the wake of the Trump presidency, climate advocates say much more funding is needed.
“I think it’s very important for states to step up,” said bill sponsor Tony Cabral, a Democratic representative from the 13th Bristol District in Massachusetts who has served in office for 30 years.
Supporters say the bill can help elevate the oft-ignored climate justice issue and its impact on vulnerable countries which usually receive scant attention. Both the Least Developed Countries Fund and the Green Climate Fund serve the Paris Agreement, adopted by the United States and other major countries in 2015, but they are separate entities and any revenue raised for the former would not count toward the U.S. government’s pledges to the latter.
“One of the objectives is to lead by example,” said Lauren Stuart, a climate change policy adviser at Oxfam America. “At the end of the day, realistically, this legislation probably won’t bring in a ton of money — Massachusetts is not a huge state — but the idea is that hopefully this can prompt other states to take action and, collectively, if we can get more states to implement this, then that can lead to much bigger contributions.”
Righting climate wrongs
The impetus for the legislation came in 2017, when former President Donald Trump announced his intent to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and to end the United States’ climate finance contributions. At the time, the country had donated just $1 billion out of a $3 billion Green Climate Fund pledge it promised to meet by 2018.
By implementing the new legislation, lawmakers in Massachusetts hope to begin the process of jumpstarting climate aid to lower-income countries.
“We were really optimistic it was going to pass during the last legislative session,” said Stuart. “It’s a very straightforward bill, there’s no real opposition to it, but policymaking can be a painfully slow process.” The majority of bills that get introduced never become law and those that do often take years to pass, according to Chris Gregory, a lobbyist with the Boston-based Northeast Energy Efficiency Council, a trade group. When Covid-19 hit, legislative priorities in the state were upended immediately as lawmakers grew overwhelmed with new challenges.
Gregory, who has been helping to shepherd the bill on a pro-bono basis, said one challenge advocates initially faced was the fact that the state’s existing process for income tax return checkoffs wasn’t working very well. Massachusetts residents already have six options on their tax returns to contribute to various causes, but while there is an established process for adding charities to the form, there is no way to remove them, even when groups raise no money or no longer merit receiving donations.
“The lawyers in the [Massachusetts] Senate said, ‘wait a second this whole thing is screwed up, we essentially need you to fix it before we take up your bill,’” said Gregory. “So after the first version, we went back and drafted a mechanism by which [charitable groups] could get thrown off. It took a lot of research and a lot of work, but we think it will work better now across the board.”
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, the first state to introduce a checkoff box on its state income tax form was Colorado in 1977, which was intended to raise money for nongame and endangered wildlife preservation. By 2018, there were over 420 state checkoff programs across 30 states and Washington D.C., with most going to efforts to support military families, health education, disease prevention and groups for children.
Exactly how much money the option in Massachusetts could raise for climate finance each year is not clear, but Gregory thinks it could be in the six figures, and that there’s room for more concerted public service advertising than past checkoff programs have deployed.
The legislation has been referred to the Committee on Revenue, and supporters are waiting for a hearing to be scheduled for the fall. Stuart said they’re expecting a legislative schedule by the end of September with a hearing for their bill hopefully within a month or two. “We keep asking for the set date and we just heard we will be given plenty of time to prepare,” she said.
While there’s no organized resistance to the bill, which promotes a voluntary effort that costs the state nothing, activists say that doesn’t mean its passage is guaranteed, especially as lawmakers are still focused on processing the influx of federal money from Covid-19 stimulus.
“This should be easy, but stuff that should be easy is always the hardest to pass,” said Gregory. He added that the state Senate is expected take the bill up and pass it quickly, but the House, which both bigger and more conservative, is where the real challenge lies.
“People think of Massachusetts as a very liberal place, but it’s an extremely conservative place in some ways, and lawmakers don’t like frivolous gestures,” he said. “So you have to make sure it’s seen as a serious undertaking and that constituents want it.”
Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey did not return requests for comment on whether they support the bill or are advocating its passage. When Warren ran for president in 2020, she proposed a $100 billion “Green Marshall Plan” to fund projects in developing nations, but the projects would have required countries to purchase American-made energy technology. Projects funded out of the Green Climate Fund and the Least Developed Countries Fund do not come with similar restrictions. Markey, who has emerged as a strong proponent of environmental justice, has been less vocal on the need for international climate finance, though earlier this year he introduced a bill to support individuals displaced by climate disasters.
Larry Yu, co-chair of the Boston Metro chapter of the Climate Reality Project, said his group has been working to help advance the bill. “Tactically we’ve held a couple of webinars and talked about it in our meetings,” he told In These Times. “And we’ve used those talking points in talking to a few targeted legislators in the state House. This is not a campaign where our strategy has been to get 10,000 people to show up at the state House. Our approach has been to go to committees.”
Yu said he and his fellow activists have no illusions that Massachusetts would somehow offset the outstanding commitments from the federal government. “But if we save one community’s livelihood, or save another family’s lives, that’s powerful,” he said. “This is a real issue of global climate justice that many people haven’t seriously engaged with before.”
Advocates of the bill hope its passage will spur similar legislation across the country. It wouldn’t be the first time states followed one another in adopting pioneering climate reforms, as has happened before in commitments to pursue 100 percent clean energy goals and set new emission standards on construction and transportation.
Daniel Sosland, president of the Acadia Center, a regional climate and energy think tank, said he’s supporting the Massachusetts bill in part because it offers citizens a way to take direct action on a global level.
“It’s symbolic,” added Gregory. “But sometimes symbols are important.”