Politics has stifled research that would have helped the state prepare for a warming planet.
Policy driven by research works better than science driven by politics.
Witness Maine, which experienced a historic explosion in its tick population, and not coincidentally, a 20-fold increase in Lyme disease diagnoses between 2000 and 2016 — going from 71 cases a year to 1,487. Lyme is spread by a single species of tick that has been common in parts of southern New England, but was unknown to most of Maine just 20 years ago.
Even though science has established a clear link between a warming climate and the spread of tick-borne disease, the state has demonstrated a terminal lack of interest in conducting any research that touches on man-made climate change.
If truckloads of tainted meat were coming over our border and making hundreds of people sick every year, we would expect state government to do something to stop it. If there were a chemical in our water systems that was sending 1,400 people a year to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, we would expect the state to get to the bottom of what could be causing the problem.
But since the tick population explosion is an indirect result of greenhouse gases produced by human activity that trap hot air in the atmosphere, politics gets in the way of finding out what’s going on.
Climate change has become a polarized political issue, and instead of using research to drive response, politicians such as Gov. Paul LePage are using their preconceived notions to shut down research, even though it’s making people very sick. LePage came into office a climate change skeptic, saying during his first gubernatorial campaign that he did not trust “Al Gore science.“
That probably got a laugh at the time, but like all jokes in politics, it’s serious at its core. Whatever Gore, an environmental activist and former Democratic vice president, was selling, LePage wasn’t buying. So, the science of climate change was reduced to another bumper sticker argument.
When he became governor, LePage used his bumper sticker as the basis of his policy. A committee preparing plans for coping with climate change, such as coastal flooding and ocean acidification, was scrapped because it had the taint of a Democratic administration. Research into the effect of a warming climate on diseases was eliminated when the climate and health program at the state Center for Disease Control was dumped.
LePage did allow some Lyme prevention research to go on with federal money, but taken out of the context of climate change, it’s not enough. And it doesn’t do anything about the other aspects of a warming climate that are not related to ticks.
Maine cannot save the global climate on its own, but it can do a better job of protecting residents and visitors from the effects of air and water that are growing warmer. Doing that would take policy that’s driven by research and a governor who won’t insist on having it work the other way around.