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As lawmakers wrap up for the year, N.H. is still an outlier in regional climate policy

One of the effects of climate change: drought.
(Vicki/Flickr)
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One of the effects of climate change: drought.

As New Hampshire winters and summers warm, new pests arrive, and communities deal with increasing flooding, the state remains an outlier in New England when it comes to planning for climate change.

Lawmakers at the statehouse have power over how we mitigate and respond to climate change. Two committees in particular are responsible for discussing climate and energy bills: the House Science, Technology and Energy committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee.

As Gov. Chris Sununu signs or vetoes bills over the next few weeks that were passed by New Hampshire lawmakers this year, we look at what made it through the legislature, what didn’t, and how climate skepticism has contributed to legislative dynamics around climate change.

What passed, and what didn’t?

Over the winter, legislators were focused on resolving the state’s energy efficiency predicament. The state’s Public Utilities Commission issued an order that would have cut the budgets for energy efficiency programs. In response, a bipartisan group of legislators in the House and Senate passed a compromise bill that offered a fix for that, and also set the rates that fund energy efficiency in state law.

A couple of senate bills meant to help New Hampshire get ready for the offshore wind industry coming to the Gulf of Maine passed through both bodies, and have been signed by Gov. Sununu.

Legislators also approved some small changes to net metering, a billing mechanism that helps smaller renewable energy facilities get credit for what they’re producing. But efforts to expand net metering more, to individuals and businesses, or to housing authorities, universities and community colleges, or the Pease development authority, didn’t move forward.

Some Senate bills that would have encouraged a transition to electric vehicles died in the House, including proposals to transition the state’s fleet to electric vehicles and establish an electric school bus pilot program.

A bill that would have established a youth council for environmental education and conservation passed in the Senate but was killed in the House

The effort to establish a greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal and create a plan for addressing climate change in New Hampshire failed to move forward again this year. A similar bill was retained in committee last session.

Some version of this proposal has been in front of lawmakers in the Science, Technology and Energy committee since at least 2018.

Legislative dynamics around climate change

New Hampshire is the only New England state without a statutory mandate for greenhouse gas reductions, and has the lowest renewable energy requirements in the region. The state’s most recent climate action plan is from 2009.

Some legislators said one dynamic contributing to the lack of action on climate change at the statehouse is a mismatch in the kinds of information lawmakers are using as they consider policy.

Rep. Lee Oxenham, a Democrat on the House’s Science, Technology and Energy committee, said she believes climate change is an existential crisis and that the state should be working to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

NH Statehouse Representatives Hall
Dan Tuohy
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NHPR
State legislators gathered in Representatives Hall on May 24, 2022.

“We need to be working positively for change. And none of that is happening. And where it's stopping is at the Science, Technology and Energy Committee and at the New Hampshire legislature,” Oxenham said.

The Plainfield Democrat said she sees some members of her committee not accepting the analytical evidence about climate change, and not taking it up as an urgent issue.

For Rep. Kat McGhee, a Democrat from Hollis, skepticism around climate science is a main reason the committee hasn’t taken more action on climate change.

“That leaves us in a very difficult position in terms of the conversations we can have and the limitations of how we get to discuss what it is we're trying to do. So as a result, we don't have an ambitious agenda. We don't have any plan,” she said.

Climate and energy legislation often originates in the House’s STE committee and the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources committee. The legislature is also responsible for the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard. Lawmakers can also create and dismantle other departments, like the Department of Energy, the Office of the Consumer Advocate, and the Public Utilities Commission.

The chair of the Science, Technology and Energy committee, Epping Republican Michael Vose, said he also sees a disconnect in the information different sides of the aisle are working with, saying Democrats seem to feel a greater sense of urgency about climate change.

Vose said his goal as chair was to keep the price of energy as low as possible, while “making sure that we had a sustainable energy future.”

He said the legislature is trying to do something about climate change, noting the passage of a bill that made community power programs more possible in New Hampshire, along with that compromise energy efficiency legislation passed this year.

“I'm not saying that Republicans don't care about climate change. They do,” he said. “But there's a limit, Republicans feel, to what we can do about climate change without having negative consequences on the state's economy.”

Some studies show that the effects of climate change could have major economic consequences globally.

Vose also expressed beliefs to NHPR about climate change that run contrary to the overwhelming majority of scientific evidence and analysis, saying the information he reads makes him skeptical of the widely accepted understanding that human activity is driving climate change.

“Carbon emissions might make a small contribution to climate change, but natural forces seem to play a much larger role than carbon emissions,” he said.

That, Vose said, leads him to believe there is less urgency to do something immediately, and that the question that should be answered is whether natural forces are more important to a changing climate than human impacts.

Scientists already have the answer to that question. It’s true that natural processes influence the earth’s climate, but natural causes do not explain the warming scientists have observed in the last century.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere.

False and misleading statements about climate change

Lawmakers in the House have made other false and misleading statements about climate change in hearings and in interviews this year.

Statements ranged from casting doubt on computer models scientists use, to claims that humans have “adapted easily” to climate change, to claims that climate change is good for agriculture or plants.

One hearing in which legislators used those arguments was for a House resolution – which are not binding laws– to oppose federal and state efforts to implement a carbon tax, which passed.

The arguments legislators have used are talking points that have long been used to undermine climate science and delay action, said Cameron Wake, a scientist studying climate change at the University of New Hampshire.

“There's a huge industry that is built up, and a lot of wealthy people and wealthy individuals and wealthy companies as a result. And so it's, I think, much easier for people to ignore the problem that's associated with the fossil fuel industry than it is to deal with it,” he said.

Wake has hope that the economic argument for transitioning energy sources will get stronger as the cost of renewable energy comes down, in some cases lower than the cost of fossil fuel energy.

“We know that solar and wind are less expensive. And now as soon as we figure out that energy storage, we're just not going to need fossil fuels for energy anymore,” he said.

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says climate misinformation has contributed to polarization around climate change, which can further deter ambitious climate policy.

When that report came out in April, the IPCC said without immediate and significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions, limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees celsius – where we could see some of the most catastrophic impacts – is out of reach. And they’re clear that action at every level – including in state government – is important for mitigating climate change.

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