Nearly two years ago, Icelandic President Olafur Grimsson spoke in Maine about Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company that is transforming the working waterfront in Portland. He stood before a packed audience to talk matter-of-factly about the company’s plans to ship cargo through a newly opening channel in the ice north of Canada.

The new shipping route is possible, he said, because climate change is melting the ice in that region. For centuries, explorers have tried to locate a “Northwest Passage” to the Pacific Ocean and to Asia, without success. Now, tragically, that passageway is being created by the destruction of Arctic ice.

Iceland’s leader and our own governor, Paul LePage, couldn’t be a greater contrast on the climate issue.

Grimsson is a pragmatist. LePage is the product of the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh School of Pseudo-Science that has long denied the very existence of climate change. Faced with irrefutable evidence, the school’s students have constantly evolved their position from outright denial to “It exists, but it’s not as bad as they say” to “Well, it isn’t our fault.”

The dissonance between the two politicians underscored how hopelessly out of touch too many American politicians have become on issues like climate change. Over 97 percent of the world’s scientists are now in agreement on climate change. Less than 3 percent are still raising questions. To hear the far right and Big Oil, you’d think it was the other way around.

But here was the leader of Iceland talking calmly about climate change. No hint of the crazy politics of climate that exists so uniquely in America. Just a simple, pragmatic discussion of what is obviously happening and one opportunity that it has created.

LePage, not knowing what to say or do, managed what looked like a painful acrobatic split between two extreme views: “Climate isn’t changing” or “Climate change is good for us.”

The public seems to be moving ahead of the politicians on climate change, just as they have with other contentious issues in the recent past. There is a growing sense that politics is the last place where big ideas live. In Congress, and in state legislatures across the country, highly polarized politics have made government the place where vision and ideas are held hostage to inflamed rhetoric, paranoid suspicions and winning at any cost.

Mainers, like others across the country, are beginning to do the work that government once did, including bringing people together for big conversations about the future. They’re reaching across party lines and injecting much-needed common sense into discussions about the challenges we face.

A prominent example is an extraordinary gathering taking place June 12 at Bowdoin College. Thirty organizations are co-sponsoring a Summit on Maine’s Economy and Climate Change, to talk about both the challenges and the opportunities created by climate changes in Maine. They include the state’s largest Chambers of Commerce, environmental, research and energy organizations.

Speakers ranging from national business leaders to lobstermen will share what they are seeing on the ground. Some of northern New England’s top climate researchers will review what they’re finding. Ten emerging Maine companies will talk about what they’re doing to create businesses that reduce carbon pollution at the local level. Others will share their dreams for the future of agriculture, tourism and other fields.

This is the kind of discussion that only a place like Maine can produce. While our politics have become more angry and polarized in recent years, at heart we’re still a town meeting kind of place. And on the big issues we confront, statewide town meetings like this one may be exactly what we need.

The problems of climate change won’t be solved June 12. Nor will everyone agree on what to do when they leave. But that isn’t the point.

These kinds of gatherings are about people across a spectrum of experiences and views gathering under one roof to break bread, listen to each other and learn. They are about imagining a more prosperous Maine and about building understanding and friendships. Over time, those relationships can produce collaboration with the power to move us forward, as a state.

This event is the first in a series of big conversations being convened by Envision Maine, in partnership with many others. Future “statewide town meetings” will focus on Maine’s rural economy in transition, the need to wire Maine with broadband, how we can become an innovative, entrepreneurial state and why we need to reinvent education.

To learn more, or to sign up for the June event, visit envisionmaine.org.

Alan Caron is the president of Envision Maine and the principal of Caron Communications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]