While many leaders are making promises around climate action, the gap between political promises and action is still dangerously large. Climate activist Greta Thunberg calls it “bla, bla, bla.” She, and many in her generation and beyond, are fighting to get policy makers and the public to act. Thankfully, Senator Brian Feldman of Maryland, chair of Maryland’s new Education, Energy and Environment Committee, is a climate hero. A brilliant, dedicated, and collaborative leader, he is shouldering a lot of the fate of our future on his back. It’s important to understand the challenges he faces as these same challenges are mirrored around the world.
Maryland’s current laws outline the most forward-leaning climate goals of any state. Yet, while a lot of progress has been made through closing coal plants and expanding renewable energy and electrification, our current policies will still significantly miss our goals. Thus, we must urgently come up with new and improved policies.
Maryland’s state legislature only meets 90 days a year. That means that our elected state officials largely have other jobs during the year. They must rely on outside experts and grassroots activists to bring in, and help evaluate, potential solutions. It also means that to the extent possible, we have to tee up legislation and votes before the legislative session starts. Thus, for those who care about climate issues, we need to be ready to hit the ground running. If a bill does not pass in the short session, a whole year is lost.
Outside of his role in the legislature, Chairman Feldman is a tax attorney and teaches public policy. In order to achieve Maryland’s climate goals, any new legislation must go through his committee. Thus, I am delighted to bring you insights from an interview with him.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi: There are so many challenges facing people in Maryland and around the world. You have chosen to do deep and impactful work on climate issues. Why did you prioritize this, and what is at stake?
Senator Brian Feldman: Prioritizing energy and eventually climate policy issues is largely a result of my committee assignments within the Maryland General Assembly. Specifically, when I was first elected to the House of Delegates, I was assigned to the Economic Matters Committee which had jurisdiction over energy policy. During my first term, the Committee led the push to enact one of the first state Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) laws in the nation, creating renewable energy requirements specifically for Maryland. This put me at the center of efforts promoting greater use of clean energy, issues which are inextricably intertwined with the environment and climate change. That focus carried over to my work in the Senate where I was assigned to the Finance Committee which had jurisdiction over energy issues.
Over time, I became a leading voice in the Senate on these topics, culminating in my sponsorship of the Maryland Clean Energy Jobs Act in 2019 which requires Maryland to obtain 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. In December of 2022, I was named Chair of the newly formed Education, Energy, and the Environment Committee. Now, any legislation that deals with climate change goes through my Committee.
As for what is at stake, there is no more pressing issue facing our planet than the climate emergency so the stakes could not be higher for policymakers like me to enact the right mix of policies to combat this threat.
There are so many aspects to climate work. How do you choose what issues to focus on?
As a business major in college and later as a tax lawyer, I have always gravitated towards assessing the economic impacts of new policies. As such, my focus on the job creation and economic development opportunities presented by the energy transition came naturally. There has always been tension in Maryland between labor and environmental groups over concerns that transitioning to a renewable energy could result in blue-collar job losses. The focus of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, by its very title, was on the positive economic potential for Maryland in terms of creating green jobs within the State in the area of solar, wind, geo-thermal, etc.
During the 2023 Session, my Committee took the lead in enacting landmark offshore wind legislation with an emphasis on the manufacturing job opportunities for our State. It was gratifying to have the bill pass the Senate on a bi-partisan vote.
Does your Jewish background and faith impact your choices? If so, how?
By way of background, I grew up in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, one of the largest predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in the United States. I was bar mitzvahed at the Tree of Life synagogue which became infamous in 2018 as the site of the deadliest attack on Jews in US history. The community had a political activist bent as far back as I can remember, starting with the Soviet Jewry movement. There was always talk about “tikkun olam,” Hebrew for “repairing the world,” so the notion of saving/repairing the planet was embedded in me early on.
What have been some of your biggest successes?
I have introduced and gained passage of several landmark pieces of legislation, including: (1) The Clean Energy Jobs Act; (2) legislation enshrining the protections of the Affordable Care Act into Maryland law; (3) several healthcare bills which resulted in the uninsured rate in Maryland being cut in half; and (4) The ABLE Act which created a program modeled after 529 College Savings Plans to allow families who have children with significant disabilities to save on a tax deferred basis for their child’s future.
With any political or policy effort, there are times when you hit brick wall. Can you give us an example of that and how you pivoted to do something that worked better?
In 2018, I introduced legislation to require Maryland to obtain 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. There was no interest or support for the bill, and it failed. In 2019, I reintroduced the bill with a new name, the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The votes required to pass the bill were still not there and I hit the “brick wall.” I had to pivot and decided to reframe the “sales pitch” to each legislator who had been opposed to the bill from an environmental argument to a job creator, economic development argument. With that change, I was able to obtain support from several key legislators, including a decisive vote from a House Republican. The bill passed the House committee by one vote and the bill ultimately was enacted into law with improvements over the 2018 bill.
You have already made major changes for good. As you get ready for the next legislative session, what are the big challenges ahead?
Most of the Senators serving on my Committee (Education, Energy, and the Environment Committee) did not have expertise on energy policy issues prior to this past Session. So, as Chair of the Committee, one major challenge for me is to ensure that all members are well-versed in the variety of complex issues presented by the energy transition underway in our State.
Also, Maryland is in the process of adopting the California Advanced Clean Cars Rule which mandates that 100% of vehicles and light trucks sold in Maryland will be electric by 2035. As a Committee, we will need to make sure that considerable progress is made in upgrading our State’s EV infrastructure to support those changes.
Finally, as we transition towards a State with all-electric cars, buildings and homes, the demands on our electricity distribution and transmission grid need to be significantly enhanced to ensure delivery of more electricity in a reliable manner and to avoid multi-year delays of important renewable energy projects.
What is your advice for other people who are just getting their start on climate policy issues?
For over a decade, I taught a graduate course on federalism and state policymaking at Johns Hopkins University. Many of my students worked on Capitol Hill and did not think much happens in our state capitols. In reality, most of the action on climate policy issues today is at the state level, not on Capitol Hill. Get to know your state legislators, visit their offices, send them emails. I think you will find that they are very accessible and that you can weigh in directly with policymakers on climate issues in a very meaningful way.