By Stephen Mulkey, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
The governor’s proposal to tax nonprofits penalizes one of the few industries — the state’s colleges and universities — that attract millions in outside capital to Maine and create the 21st-century knowledge economy Maine sorely needs to escape the bottom of nearly every national economic survey.
But why are we surprised? Maine has stuck to traditional industries that have long since declined or departed. Whether plant closures at paper mills backed by state loan guarantees, failure to make hard choices about funding our public universities while threatening to tax the private ones, or scaring off investments in clean energy, Maine is speeding in reverse away from the future.
It’s a double whammy for Maine, as an economy with fewer and fewer young workers runs headlong into the effects of climate change on our natural resources. Without the right thinking, this collision will play out over the next few decades and result in devastated natural resources and continually diminished well-being for Mainers.
There is nothing alarmist about the predicted impact of climate change on Maine’s natural resources. Indeed, “Maine’s Climate Future,” released by the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, makes clear many of the effects are happening right now.
The report quotes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data showing that global temperature in 2014 was the warmest in 135 years of keeping records. Nine of the 10 warmest years occurred this century. Maine’s average temperature is 3 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than any time in the past 120 years.
The report anticipates a similar 3-degree increase between now and 2050 and makes clear Maine’s last few “traditional” industries — everything from skiing and snowmobiling to maple syrup production, papermaking, lobstering and groundfishing — are imperiled and likely to collapse.
Bringing taxes and climate change into the same discussion might be an invitation for boredom and infighting, but it needs to be a rallying cry — an opportunity — for anyone interested in preserving our great state. We must use the challenge of climate change to launch Maine into the future.
Maine’s upside-down demographics will not change until we give young Mainers a reason to stay and young families from away a reason to come. But making Maine colleges — some of the best institutions of higher education in the world — more expensive does the exact opposite.
Much of the state’s cash flow is also dependent on natural resources, including our agricultural lands and our residential waterfronts. They’re all we have that is tangible so, as with our institutions of higher education, we must preserve them.
We must listen to climate science knowing that, even as we reduce our carbon emissions, we must proactively adapt and use the opportunity to make Maine a haven for climate solutions. Proactive adaptation is far less expensive than reactive adaptation.
Maine is well provisioned to become a leading source of knowledge and skills for adapting to climate change; this know-how will be in high demand wherever natural resources are being transformed. Investing in adaptation can prevent an unfolding disaster and also reinvigorate Maine’s economy by bringing high paying jobs to attract young people back to the state.
We do this by creating a knowledge economy focused on adaptive management of Maine’s natural resources. We do this because we must.
Research into wind, solar and tidal power, biofuels, energy efficiency, climate change, ocean acidification, and retrofitting old residential and industrial buildings are all taking place on our campuses as we speak.
At Unity College, we offer Maine-centric education that positions students to create and occupy the green jobs of the 21st century, but all of Maine’s institutions of higher education — community colleges, land-grant state universities, law schools and elite liberal arts colleges — are a “clean industry” for Maine that provides youths a path to prosperity.
Maine’s colleges and universities, public and private, have done much to promote a knowledge economy here; we should not tax these innovators and producers of Maine-bred scholars. They are necessary to reverse Maine’s brain drain, and to develop a knowledge economy that will create jobs and help our society adapt.
The evidence suggests that the future economy of the world will be based in large measure on knowledge and innovation. With its unique mix of manageable natural resources and top centers of learning, Maine has a grand opportunity to reinvent itself as a center for climate adaptation and sustainable natural resource management.
But this is not a quick fix, and taxing the world of higher education is exactly the wrong approach.
Citizen from away, resident of Maine, and environmental scientist, Stephen Mulkey, Ph.D., is president of Unity College, America’s Environmental College, in Unity.