by Francis Flisiuk
Portland Phoenix news story
“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1862.
Last month, Dario and Sabine Schwoerer docked in Portland with their five children to visit the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and talk about their journey through the fabled Northwest Passage. It was a journey that wouldn’t have been possible just a couple of decades ago. They were able to navigate their 40-foot sailboat through straits that were once clogged with ice.
The Swiss family was here to give a spirited lecture on climate change, the effects of which they’ve seen and documented firsthand over the past 15 years, sailing through every ocean and climbing the world’s highest peaks, including the Alps where they were raised.
The Schwoerers have done everything from cleaning up plastic rubbish in the Pacific Ocean and along Everest’s hiking trails to teaching children in China about sustainability and installing solar panels in remote New Zealand communities. Along the way, they’ve been sharing stories of resiliency, adventure and an unyielding reverence for our natural world.
But these adventurers, climatologists and environmental sustainability educators hadn’t come to Portland just to do a travelogue. Their message is one of dire urgency: We must act now on climate change. People all over the world are struggling to cope with global warming, and soon we Portlanders will, too.
“Our environment comes first; everything else is second,” said Dario Schwoerer, 48, who with Sabine, 40, founded the TOPtoTOP Global Climate Change Expedition. “It’s not important if we have nice clothes or Armani glasses or a Swiss watch. The politicians should support the important things: a healthy environment and the future of our children.”
By the time you read this, the Schwoerers will have sailed far down the Eastern Seaboard toward the Caribbean, where they will urge more people to take climate change seriously and adopt environmentally sustainable life practices. To “take life slower,” as they frequently suggest.
Here in Portland, our mayor, Ethan Strimling, told me we have a lot to learn from the kind of life the Schwoerers lead.
“I was really impressed with them; they’re an example for all of us,” said Strimling, 49. “We absolutely have to confront this issue (climate change) head on. It’s an urgent issue for a city like Portland. You look at a community like Bayside, which could easily be underwater before we know it if we don’t make some changes.”
I know what you’re probably thinking: “Yes, climate change is serious. I’ve heard this all before, but what can I actually do? My individual actions are too minuscule to have an impact on climate change, especially when there are so many competing interests and millions of people who aren’t yet on board with sustainability.”
I get it — global problems require global solutions. But that doesn’t mean personal empowerment doesn’t make a difference. It’s all about making small changes.
Take Mayor Strimling, for example. He commutes on a scooter during the warmer months and uses an energy-efficient hybrid vehicle during the winter. Change starts with the individual. Rethink your driving patterns. Hire an energy auditor to get information about your consumption. Treat beef like a delicacy, or else more cows will keep farting.
For those who really want to help fight the good fight, Strimling suggests paying attention to renewable energy policies at the local, statewide and federal levels. “In order to get the change we need, we really need to push the important policies,” he said.
According to Strimling, the City Council and the Planning Board take the issue of climate change seriously and have been putting forth policies to slow down its effects and adapt to its changes.
In Portland, an ordinance was passed requiring businesses and government buildings to benchmark their energy usage, essentially monitoring their carbon footprint with the goal of minimizing it.
About a month ago, the City Council voted unanimously to set up a solar array at the Ocean Avenue landfill that will eventually generate enough energy to power up City Hall. Strimling would like to see 25 percent of the city’s buildings reliant on solar energy within the next 10 years.
“I think we can get there,” he said.
One major problem with these energy-efficient policies, which Strimling, environmental advocates and scientists all noted, is timing: They’re simply trudging along too slowly through the bureaucratic mud.
“With (energy usage) benchmarking, there were some businesses that came forward and said that it would be onerous for them to compute what their impact is,” said Strimling. “It’s that indirect resistance. Some folks want to take a slower approach. But we have to set an example.”
One such example-setter is Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Initiatives that he’s been promoting for the past decade include: developing a robust solar power industry in Maine; expanding the number of electric vehicles and charging stations; limiting the amount of carbon that power plants produce; and weaning ourselves off dirty fuels like tar sands, coal and other fossil fuels.
But, he said, with the recent election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence (two adamant climate-change deniers) as president and vice president of the United States, there is now a lot of uncertainty. The fact that their buddy Gov. Paul LePage (and a minority of his allies) blocked an important solar bill last year, and opposed participation in the federal Clean Power Plan, adds another politically charged obstacle to mitigating the effects of climate change.
This provides challenges to clean-energy advocates like 40-year-old Voorhees, who sees enormous economic potential in solar energy.
Currently, Maine is in last place in the Northeast in terms of solar installations per capita, despite solar being cheaper than ever before. The price of solar panels has plummeted from $70 a watt to $1 a watt.
“Solar technology has gone through a transformation,” said Voorhees. “Costs are going down, and it’s becoming more efficient and competitive.
“There’s huge growth in it, but Maine lags behind,” he said. “We lack any policy that encourages investment in solar. We’re missing out on a huge opportunity.”
For that, you can thank Gov. LePage, who wrote in his veto letter that last year’s proposed solar bill would increase energy costs for Maine families, and businesses couldn’t afford solar installations.
“He can be very effective rhetorically at scaring people about policies,” said Voorhees. “He blames energy policies on the closing of paper mills, which have nothing to do with that. But he does it loudly and repeatedly enough to have an impact. What’s challenging about energy efficiency is that it makes good sense to invest in it, but it requires time, effort and money up front.”
As for Voorhees, he says he’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic about Maine’s future with climate change but is just “focused on the next step.” Apart from the ongoing legislative efforts the NRCM promotes, Voorhees said hope for a clean-energy future also can be found with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and through work being done at Efficiency Maine.
The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — RGGI, pronounced “Reggie” — is a cooperative effort among nine Eastern states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont. Through implementing a multistate CO2 emissions cap, regulating emissions from fossil-fuel-fired electric power generators and investing proceeds from the CO2 allowance auctions to consumer energy efficiency programs, RGGI aims to not just create a clean-energy infrastructure for the future but save participating households a total of $4.67 billion in lifetime energy bill savings.
“It’s important that we don’t lose hope and to realize that our actions (and inactions) still matter,” said Voorhees. “It’s not too late.”
One hopeful sign: Public opinion has shifted toward embracing the cause, which is especially important considering how many climate-change deniers hold important seats in the Senate, House and Oval Office. According to a recent survey conducted by the Natural Resources Council, 59 percent of Mainers believe negative effects of climate change are already happening. Only 16 percent think global warming will “never” have harmful impacts in Maine.
Public perception matters because those people will vote with their dollars, and the market will follow and eventually succumb to an increasing desire for cleaner energy options.
Despite Trump’s ability to repeal executive orders related to energy and the possibility of his pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, experts say he’ll have a negligible impact on unstoppable market forces.
“People are starting to see long-term economic benefits to clean-energy transition,” said Voorhees. “Maine has had relatively sound goals, and LePage agreed to an interim goal for the year 2030, to reduce carbon pollution by 35-40 percent. It’s a good goal and consistent with what science tells us is the trajectory we need to be on for a safe climate.”
Last week, Voorhees spoke to a packed lecture hall at the University of New England in Biddeford about the benefits of initiatives like RGGI during a Climate Change Solutions conference. His lecture was preceded by a keynote address from Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a man who’s an “important ally in Washington” when it comes to promoting renewable energy legislation and regulations on big carbon polluters, Voorhees said.
OLD MAINE RULES – Senator Angus King mentioned an old Maine roto-tilling rule as an example of how we should view the environment: “if you use it, bring it back the same way you found it with a full tank of gas.”
“We have this planet on loan; we don’t own it,” King told the gathering. “It’s intergenerational theft for us to use up the capacity of the planet in ways that leave problems for future generations. This is a national security issue. It’s an infrastructure issue. It’s also a practical issue.”
King cited such things as the mass migration of 1 billion climate refugees and the rendering of many coastal cities uninhabitable as reasons why fighting climate change isn’t just a “moral and ethical issue.”
“We are talking about an enormous change,” said King. “How do we deal with this change?”
According to King, communities around the world must continue to work at lowering emissions and investing in renewable energy, but they also must be ready to adapt to effects that are irreversible. Over the next 20 years, our Earth is expected to reach a certain increase in warming, but that’s just a reaction to carbon that was put in the atmosphere when Nirvana was on tour in the ’80s.
So what exactly are these negative effects? How will climate change affect you, the Mainer?
I posed those questions to Dr. Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which received a $6.5 million grant from NASA last year to expand its climate change education program.
WARM WATERS, LESS COD – Andrew Pershing, the Chief Scientific Officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute said that a warmer Gulf of Maine is having a profound economic impact on fisheries in the area.
Pershing’s main research focus has been to try to characterize and understand the relationship between our warming oceans and marine life. Last year, he and his team found that the Gulf of Maine is warming up faster than 99 percent of the world’s saltwater bodies.
“It’s a really remarkable change that very few ocean ecosystems have experienced,” said Pershing. “We’re trying to grapple with the impacts and consequences of that.”
According to Pershing, the most noticeable impacts a warming ocean will have on Mainers are a decrease in cod stocks; a temporary increase in lobster stocks; and more frequent instances of “nuisance flooding” along coastal communities. Scientists from other fields add that climate change also will increase deer tick populations and periods of drought here.
In the Gulf of Maine, rising temperatures will affect cod populations, which prefer colder waters. This puts a huge economic strain on fisheries throughout New England.
In terms of lobster, Pershing said his team is still putting together a comprehensive analysis of the impact warming waters have on the popular crustacean. But he offered some educated predictions. “If you look at the large scale,” he said, “warming has been beneficial to Maine’s lobster stock, as populations have moved up from the waters off of Rhode Island and Connecticut.”
“The question we have is that as waters continue to warm, at what point does lobster begin to decline in Maine?”
Thus, climate change throws the future of Maine’s robust fishing economy under a veil of uncertainty.
But perhaps the most noticeable impact climate change might have on the everyday Mainer over the next 20-30 years is nuisance flooding in towns like Scarborough and Kennebunkport, not to mention several Portland neighborhoods.
Although city officials have taken only baby steps toward addressing the very real need to reconfigure areas like Bayside and the Waterfront, they have a big interest in preserving those historic neighborhoods. This is because, according to Pershing, such below-sea-level areas could be underwater by the last half of this century.
A WETTER WORLD – A NRCM projection of what Back Cove would look like with a meter of sea-level rise.
In the meantime, they will be at the mercy of king tides and storm surges.
“We’ve got to grab our seats and go along for the ride,” said Pershing. “But also really think about resiliency and adaptation. I would like to see us making informed decisions about the reality of the world we see through data and science.”