by Susan Sharon
MPBN news story
Gov. Paul LePage, who has previously referred to global warming as “a scam,” and who has said he’s not convinced that human activities are a significant contributor to greenhouse gases, is now asking the Department of Environmental Protection and other state agencies to take steps – albeit small ones – to confront it. As Susan Sharon reports, his action comes just five months after he vetoed legislation that would have authorized state agencies and stakeholders to study the effects of climate change on Maine.
In a letter to DEP Commissioner Patty Aho dated Nov. 5, Gov. LePage writes that “natural resources are the cornerstone of the economies” of many of our coastal and inland communities, and “changes in our climate may provide both opportunities and challenges.”
With this in mind, the governor directs Commissioner Aho to convene an “Environmental and Energy Resources Working Group.”
“And the purpose of the group is to, basically, create a summary of ongoing projects, programs and/or activities within the natural resource-based agencies,” says Adrienne Bennett, a spokesperson for the governor. She says any successful business owner checks inventory from time to time, and this working group is an outgrowth of that idea.
Many departments are already independently taking steps to deal with climate change. Bennett says this will improve communication between them. “Once the administration creates a summary, we can discuss mechanisms for cross-agency partnerships, increased efficiencies and information sharing.”
The creation of the working group, says one former DEP staffer, is at odds with the governor’s veto of LD 825, a “Resolve, To Study Climate Change and Implement the Recommendations of the Department of Environmental Protection Report on Climate Change.”
The bill would have required state agencies and interested parties to study climate change, develop a plan to address high priority recommendations and submit a final report to the Legislature by 2015.
In a June 24 veto message, Gov. LePage said the resolve imposed an unfunded mandate on state agencies doing the work and said it “adds layers of workgroups and reporting on top.”
“We can only see this as the most shameless hypocrisy,” says Malcolm Burson. “To have the governor veto it and now four months, five months, later to have him coming in with a new initiative – it’s mind boggling.”
Burson is a public policy advisor for the Conservation Law Foundation, but until the end of 2011 he served as the manager of the climate change program in the Maine DEP.
Before the LePage administration took office, Burson had helped work on a report titled “People and Nature Adapting to a Changing Climate.” It was produced by a stakeholder group of more than 70 people from all sectors of Maine’s economy over a period of 14 months. And it unanimously recommended steps that cities and towns could take to address climate change.
Burson says Maine had been ahead of other states in the effort. But when the LePage administration came in, Burson says implementation ground to a halt.
“I was basically told not to work any longer, that I should hold my desk down – and I did have other things to do,” Burson says. “But in term of actively moving climate adaptation work forward, working with other departments, I was basically told not to do that.”
Susan Sharon: “Was there a reason given about why you should stop that work?”
Malcolm Burson: “The original statement was that, while the current commissioner thought that this was important, that the administration didn’t want to have anything to do with it, and they didn’t want their name attached to anything that would be construed as ‘understanding the climate was changing.'”
Adrienne Bennett says the DEP directive is different than the resolve on climate change, because it does not require agencies to do additional work.
Pete Didisheim, of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, points out that the governor wouldn’t have had to establish a working group to develop a coordinated response from state agencies if he hadn’t already abolished the Land and Water Resources Council as part of an effort to dismantle the State Planning Office, which did the exact same thing.
“That’s developed multi-agency approaches to problems such as climate change,” Didisheim says. “But again, it is a small step in the right direction. It’s just unfortunate that he vetoed the bill when it was going through the Legislature.”
Didisheim says the directive doesn’t appear to have the urgency or the broad involvement of stakeholders to address the risks of climate change or to plan for the future. But Didisheim says he does think it’s important that Gov. LePage has recognized that Maine is vulnerable, and that strategies for dealing with that fact have to be developed.