The shrewd politics and dubious goals of climate-change order

Can a governor save the planet from undergoing drastic climate change by way of executive order? That answer is obvious, especially when the state is Connecticut, the third smallest, representing just 0.15% of the nation’s total land mass.

Yet Gov. Ned Lamont’s signing, on Sept. 3, of an executive order strengthening Connecticut’s efforts to combat and mitigate the effects of climate change has both political and practical applications, as fanciful as its goals may be.

Politically, it draws a stark line for Connecticut voters between how the state’s Democratic governor views the challenge of climate change and how it is seen by Republicans, at least by Republicans in Washington and the Republican president, Donald Trump. Which is to say it is not considered a major concern at all, and certainly not something that should impede government support for coal and oil. Just a couple of days before Lamont issued his executive order, the Trump administration again proposed eliminating federal requirements that oil and gas companies control leaks of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 56% of voters nationally consider climate change an emergency and 67% told pollsters more needs to be done about it. Those numbers, I suspect, are significantly higher in blue-state Connecticut.

Lamont, who signed the order surrounded by environmental advocates at a forum hosted by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection in Hartford, highlighted the policy differences. Lamont stated that while he was committed to assuring “Connecticut remains a national leader on climate change,” the “highest levels of our federal government are refusing to accept scientific facts.”

Practically speaking, an executive order sets down some markers. This order requires DEEP to recommend strategies to achieve the goal, by 2040, to produce all the state’s electricity without using greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels.

Is that realistic? Probably not. About half the electricity Connecticut uses is produced by natural gas. This is the result of state policy. While natural gas is a fossil fuel, and so would have to disappear as an electric power producer to meet the 2040 goal, power plants using natural gas are significantly cleaner than the coal and oil power plants they displaced. Even now, the Lamont administration backs plans for a new gas-fired power plant in Killingly, despite opposition from environmentalists who want a commitment to renewable sources only.

Another 43% of the state’s electricity is generated by the two Millstone nuclear power reactors in Waterford, which almost certainly won’t be around in 2040. Hydro, solar, wind power and biomass generate about 6%. The state’s last coal-fired plant, in Bridgeport, generates 1% and is slated to close in 2021.

Moving from where the state is to zero carbon in two decades seems close to impossible. Implementing plans for major offshore wind generation would help, but won’t get us there, particularly if nuclear is subtracted.

However, as an aspiration, it sets the right framework, forcing planners to explore what policy steps would be necessary by the General Assembly to move Connecticut significantly in that direction.

Lamont also built upon an earlier executive order, issued by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in 2015, which among other things created the Governor’s Council on Climate Change. The council last December delivered a report to the General Assembly on what strategies it concludes must be pursued to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets. Lamont now has given it the added responsibility to monitor progress and report back to the governor by Jan. 15, 2021.

Executive orders, adopting strategies and setting targets are all easier than getting legislation passed to implement policy. They don’t involve the tradeoffs necessary to line up votes, face less push back from industry, and don't confront fiscal realities. Improving coastal resiliency as sea levels rise, for example, will be expensive, but Lamont wants his state to go on a debt diet.

Still, it’s far better to take steps to acknowledge the challenge and consider how to address it than it is to dismiss it.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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