Around the time NASA announced that Earth had just experienced the hottest first five months of any year on record, 300-plus business owners, civic leaders and scientists gathered at an Envision Maine event to discuss climate change and Maine’s economy. Thirty fast-paced presentations touched on the many threats associated with a warming and more volatile climate: intense storm events, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, disrupted ecosystems, agricultural challenges, insect infestations, heat waves, public health threats and more.
Despite these sobering challenges, there was an encouraging sense of shared purpose and optimism in the room that day. The term that kept surfacing was “opportunity”: The spectacle of climate disruption gives Maine added incentive to jump-start clean energy and other innovative technologies in ways that could vastly improve its economic prospects.
That transformation is already under way, and many of those at the podium talked about how their businesses and organizations are promoting renewable energy, local foods, improved transportation and energy efficiency. If we can markedly accelerate those efforts, Maine has – in the words of keynote speaker Dan Reicher of Stanford University – “a great chance to do good and do well.”
Climate change is not a singular threat so much as a risk amplifier and multiplier – making more difficult the existing challenges of running a business, managing a woodlot, harvesting agricultural crops or marine species, and sustaining personal health. The best response, suggested Ivan Fernandez, a University of Maine soil scientist, is to multiply the ways in which we creatively address interlinked economic and ecological challenges.
Maine has already established itself as a leader in renewable energy and local foods, and several global trends are helping give these movements a boost:
• Costs of solar panels, batteries and wind turbines are falling, making it easier for Mainers to take advantage of the state’s naturally abundant sun and wind resources.
• States and nations cutting fossil fuel use are still achieving robust economic growth, affirming the potential Maine has to expand its economy through aggressive development of clean energy technologies.
• The global Divest-Invest initiative is redirecting funds from fossil fuel industries to clean energy enterprises, making more investment capital available.
Mainers who want to ride the cresting clean-energy wave should not wait for a surf party in Augusta. This challenge is “too big for government to solve,” climate scientist Cameron Wake noted. People need to begin immediate action in their communities, and let governmental action follow.
Local action can’t come soon enough for the struggling communities of rural Maine, observed Vaughn Woodruff of Insource Renewables in Pittsfield (which recently lost its second largest employer). Redirecting some of the $5 billion Maine exports in fossil fuel payments annually to support local jobs in renewable energy and building weatherization could revitalize towns suffering from the loss of traditional industries.
Kathleen Meil of Evergreen Home Performance said the energy efficiency contracting firm has grown to include 22 highly trained “green-collar” workers who enjoy dependable jobs, good benefits and the satisfaction of doing valuable work. Atop its long winters and increasingly hot summers, Maine has the fifth oldest housing stock in the nation. So upgrading building efficiency and installing solar panels and small-scale wind turbines could offer great paybacks over the long haul.
Maine has some catching up to do, having slipped behind other New England states in its support for renewable energy (and facing an added hurdle now with a governor actively obstructing these efforts). Vermont set about aggressively increasing its reliance on renewable energy in 2005 and now ranks first in the nation in solar jobs per capita. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut are all putting substantial resources into fostering renewable energy.
Even without strong state incentives, promising action is under way in Maine. ReVision Energy created the state’s first solar-powered charging station for electric vehicles, and now wants to electrify Maine’s renowned boatbuilding industry so it designs and constructs the “Tesla of boats” (in the words of ReVision’s co-founder Phil Coupe). Communities like Freeport have launched solar buying clubs, and many “community solar” projects are under construction, with arrays that serve multiple households.
Keynote speaker Kathrin Winkler, chief sustainability officer with EMC Corporation (active in cloud computing), spoke of pursuing energy efficiency “rabidly” – for its benefits to the global environment, the corporate bottom line and the security of the communities where EMC works (reducing disruptions like power outages). Time after time, she’s seen how initiatives to minimize environmental impacts have energized employees and increased their sense of passion, creativity and purpose. In her experience, the quest for greater sustainability has yielded far more paybacks than anyone expected – for the people involved, the company and the environment.
Rick Schuhmann, president of The Landing School in Arundel, cut the carbon footprint of one boat built there from 2,500 pounds to 20 pounds simply by acquiring all the needed wood from Maine. He’s convinced that there are a lot of “simple, elegant technologies” we can employ here and now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase climate resilience and fortify Maine’s economy. In his words, there’s “a lot of low-hanging fruit in our daily lives.”
The incentive to act is only too clear: science affirms that “the future is not what it used to be.” Alongside stark climate threats are infinite opportunities – ripe for the taking.
Marina Schauffler, Ph.D., is a writer who runs Natural Choices (naturalchoices.com).