Guest columnist Shaina Sadai: Holyoke’s shortsighted decision on energy transition grant

  • Pedestrians cross High Street in front of Holyoke CitY Hall. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/31/2020 4:00:12 PM

In early May, the Holyoke City Council voted to reject a $275,000 grant from the Barr Foundation. The grant would have allowed the city to plan the energy transition necessary to confront the threat of climate change, while not requiring us to spend tax dollars.

As a doctoral candidate in climate science and a resident of Holyoke, I am dismayed at this shortsighted decision.

Climate change is a threat to the safety and well-being of our community members, and this threat will only grow with time. The science tells us we need to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to meet the more ambitious 1.5 Celsius goal of the Paris climate agreement. This is necessary to limit the severity of changes in our climate system and the impacts that they have on us, such as increasing heat waves and severe storms.

We are rapidly running out of time to make the necessary cuts to emissions. We need to drop emissions by 55% over the next 10 years to stay on track. This means that how we set the path to achieving that in the near term will determine whether we are successful. Massachusetts has been a leader in reducing emissions, though there is still much to be done.

Holyoke is often highlighted as a city which is leading in this energy transition, and for good reason, but our work here is only just beginning.

Not only will the threat of climate change grow with time, but the impacts will be felt disproportionately by already marginalized populations. Responding to climate change requires that we not only address the problem itself, but that we simultaneously address structural issues that lead to unequal power dynamics and allocation of resources. Without this key piece we risk further burdening already marginalized populations.

Responses must include a Just Transition, which centers racial, economic, and environmental justice, and this key component is a large part of how the grant would have been utilized. These considerations are especially important in a city like Holyoke with a large immigrant population and where almost 30% of residents live under the poverty line.

The science of climate change gives us the big picture of the emissions reductions that are necessary, but how a just transition plays out in different regions varies based on the needs of each community. Funding from this grant would have supported enhanced partnerships between city planners and community organizations, determined the best ways to ensure people’s energy needs are met, and analyzed how transition plans would impact all residents.

It would have funded technical planning that would look at housing, parks and other city wide infrastructure to assess and respond to our energy needs while moving away from fossil fuels, and determining the most equitable ways of addressing the renewable energy transition for the people who live here.

In the absence of leadership on climate action at the national level it is even more important that we have action at the state and local levels. This action needs to include science-based policy, with a focus on the needs and circumstances of people in local geographic regions.

The need to plan the energy transition away from fossil fuels in Holyoke hasn’t gone away, but we have missed an opportunity to receive generous funding that would have been a great benefit. I encourage the members of the Holyoke City Council to rethink their rejection of this grant and find a way to make this work, for the benefit of all of us who live here.

Shaina Sadai (Rogstad) is a PhD candidate at the Climate Systems Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
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