As Maine’s coastal waters warm and sea levels rise, companies here can’t afford to ignore climate change.
By Jim Wellehan, owner and president of Auburn-based Lamey-Wellehan Shoes
Portland Press Herald op-ed
AUBURN — I was born in 1938 and grew up during World War II. Snow was plentiful, and every January or February, there was a week when the temperature never went above zero, day or night.
In 2004, the U.N. Climate Change Conference took place in Copenhagen, as leaders from around the world came to realize not only that it did not stay below zero consistently in Maine in the depths of winter, but also that the Arctic was warming and starting to melt, as were the Greenland glaciers and the huge ice sheets of the South Pole. Scientists had studied it, and had come to a consensus that it was caused by the tremendous increase in carbon emissions, brought about by the changed fossil fuel use that started with the Industrial Revolution.
The perceived dangers were a rise in sea level that would flood many islands and low-lying communities from Bangladesh to the Netherlands. Miami, New York, Boston and Portland are, just a few years later, on the list of places at risk.
Obviously, Lamey-Wellehan had an obligation to help reduce the impact already baked in, as do we all. We started with a gathering of gently used, donated shoes to spell out “350.org” on the floor of our Falmouth store to create awareness of the issue. (This is how our initiative to collect shoes for the homeless and impoverished began.) Once started, it was critical to continue. We committed to achieve a 50 percent cut in carbon emissions by 2020, a scant 16 years from the time we began.
As we have expanded the size of many of our stores and grown our sales, we have been careful to take the appropriate steps to cut carbon emissions. The wonderful thing about this venture was the dramatic reduction in costs that it brought about.
While all businesses, homes, municipalities and school districts have this opportunity – and obligation – the degree to which it also cuts costs removes a great deal of financial pressure. All of our stores but one now have vestibule entrances. Low-E, double-pane windows have been installed in each remodel, helping to keep the heat from getting out in the winter and getting in during the summer. LED lights illuminate most stores. Occupancy sensors turn the lights out when the space is empty. A curtain seals the delivery doors in the rear of the stores. The new stores all have R-50 insulated ceilings and R-30 walls, and the Auburn store has a solar roof. We have changed our temperature settings from a steady 72 to 68 in the winter, and 75 in the summer, with a more adaptive setting in hours of non-occupancy.
While most of these changes cost money, the net result is that our cost of energy dropped by thousands of dollars during this transition, and went from a combined energy cost of 0.99 percent of sales in 2005 to 0.51 percent. In a competitive industry like retail, one-half a percentage point of savings makes a great difference. Most businesses in the world – as well as local governments and school districts – need this sort of cost reduction. Taking a long perspective, with less focus on annual budgets, enables it. The economics works!
We are listing projects to achieve the 50 percent cut by 2020, and are confident that we will achieve our goal. When that is done, it will be time not to rest, but to keep change coming, until we and the world are carbon free. A recent study just showed that the temperature of the deep ocean off the coast of Maine is 11 degrees above normal and the highest in 15 years! Lobsters will continue to migrate north, while ice melt and sea-level rise continue, and it turns out that this fairly cold winter was likely the result of Arctic temperatures hitting record highs and no longer keeping all of the cold air mass contained.
As the Arctic warms, the tundra’s coast melts and releases enormous quantities of methane. The Gulf Stream is slowing, and its ability to warm Europe is becoming a question. To avert the worst of outcomes for the planet that our children and grandchildren will inhabit, we must all work to cut our carbon emissions. The good news? Cutting carbon cuts costs. We must all do all we can do to cut carbon emissions, and we will each benefit from that economically as well as morally.