Senator Michael Willette, Chair
Representative Ronald Martin, Chair
Joint Standing Committee on State and Local Government
My name is Emmie Theberge, and I am the Clean Energy Policy Advocate for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Thank you for allowing us to present this testimony. We support this common-sense legislation, which would integrate critical scientific information about our changing climate into municipal planning. Doing so will reduce risks and costs for property tax payers along our coast.
Maine scientists, planners, and others have understood for some time that sea-level rise from a warming climate poses a considerable risk to Maine’s extended coastline. We have the second-longest coastline on the eastern seaboard (after Florida), and large portions of our coast are low-lying. Much of our population—and therefore our built infrastructure—is located close to the coast. Furthermore, our coastal economy, from tourism to fisheries, is extremely important to Maine’s economy and traditional values.
Sea-level rise is an established scientific fact, whether you consult the literature from the international scientific community or from the University of Maine. In fact, the severity of sea-level rise projections has only increased over the past decade. Below are some key findings about sea-level rise from three extremely well-respected institutions, as well as the very latest sea-level rise study.
In its 2015 update to its “Maine’s Climate Future” report, the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute stated:
- Today, sea level is rising at a rate much faster than any time in the past 5,000 years.
- Global sea level is projected to rise an additional 0.5 to 2.0 feet or more by 2050. Scientists consider these ranges of estimates to be conservative, with other estimates of global sea-level rise notably higher—an equivalent of 3.3 feet or more by mid-century.
- The last time temperatures increased by 3.6–5.4 °F (which international climate models predict for Maine by 2050 under “business-as-usual” scenarios), the accompanying melting of portions of Greenland and Antarctica resulted in an eventual sea-level rise of more than 16 feet, suggesting that current estimates of sea-level rise for the projected warming by 2100 may be on the low end.
The National Climate Assessment is the country’s top interagency review of climate change science and impacts. The Third Assessment was published in 2014. (Dr. Robert Kates, from the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, was a lead author for the Northeast chapter.) Key findings for the Northeast include:
- Coastal flooding has increased due to a rise in sea level of approximately one foot since 1900. (This rate of sea-level rise exceeds the global average of approximately 8 inches.)
- Global sea levels are projected to rise 1 to 4 feet by 2100. Sea-level rise in the Northeast is projected to continue to exceed global average sea-level rise.
- Sea-level rise of two feet, without any changes in storms, would more than triple the frequency of dangerous coastal flooding throughout most of the Northeast. (Furthermore the Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the United States. Between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast saw more than a 70% increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events.)
The Risky Business Project focuses on quantifying and publicizing the economic risks from the impacts of a changing climate. The project is led by a bipartisan committee that includes George Schultz (Treasury Secretary and Secretary of State for Ronald Reagan) and Henry Paulson (Treasury Secretary for George W. Bush), and Maine’s own former Senator Olympia Snowe. According to the 2014 Risky Business report:
“While the Northeast region of the U.S. is expected to experience a sizeable increase in temperatures and average number of extremely hot days over the course of the century, the region’s major climate impact will be sea-level rise and its effect on coastal infrastructure.”
Finally a study published in the journal, Nature, just this month found that the Northeast experienced an unprecedented spike in sea-level rise during 2009-2010. During this two-year period, sea level rose four inches across the Northeast, and five inches in Casco Bay. This study revealed the fact that sea-level rise can occur in extreme leaps, and found that such extreme changes are likely to occur with greater frequency given the trend in climate emissions and warming.
The scientific basis for a response to sea-level rise is clear. It is also obvious that an enormous amount of private and public property lies close to current coastlines. These include roads, bridges, schools, and wastewater treatment plants, all of which are paid for by taxpayers. Attached to our testimony are three maps that illustrate in red the minimum impacts of sea-level rise of 3 feet. The orange areas show areas that would be impacted by larger amounts of sea-level rise—and also serve as useful illustrations of the areas most vulnerable to storm damage that occurs when sea-level rise is combined with more frequent and more severe storms (which are also projected to accompany climate change).
Several responses are called for, at multiple levels of government—including actions to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions which, if unchecked, will mean we experience the most extreme degree of sea-level rise.
The simple step of incorporating consideration of sea-level rise into municipal comprehensive plans is one of the most basic and common-sense responses. This bill would not dictate what specific actions coastal communities should take, merely that they should consider and address rising seas in the ways that make sense to them.
In North Carolina, the state legislature actually passed a bill forbidding municipalities from incorporating the latest sea-level rise science into their local land use planning. We have every reason to expect that Maine will not take this “head in the sand” approach. Indeed, last fall Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection issued an excellent report on adapting to climate change. One of the recommendations was for the Department to “develop application submission requirements to address sea-level rise as a consideration in design and review for all projects within 250 feet of a coastal wetland…” What the DEP report recommendation and this legislation have in common is that they start by integrating more complete information into our planning and development decision-making.
In conclusion, we could hardly put it more clearly than Risky Business committee member Senator Olympia Snowe: “What Risky Business shows us is that climate change poses measurable risks to our economy, and that some of these risks are quite severe. Our coastal communities are especially vulnerable to sea-level rise and storm surge. But the risks get even worse if we don’t act to make our coastal infrastructure more resilient, and begin to mitigate the risks through reducing emissions.”
 Fernandez, I.J. et al. 2015. Maine’s Climate Future: 2015 Update. Orono, ME: University of Maine. http://climatechange.umaine.edu/research/publications/climate-future
 Horton, R., et al, 2014: Ch. 16: Northeast. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program. http://s3.amazonaws.com/nca2014/low/NCA3_Full_Report_16_Northeast_LowRes.pdf?download=1
 Risky Businesses: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States. June 2014. http://riskybusiness.org/reports/#report-1