AUGUSTA — For Gov. Janet Mills, climate change isn’t just a matter of political debate.

For her, it’s an issue that cuts instead to the heart of what Maine is all about.

In one recent speech, the 71-year-old Mills wondered if Mainers in the not-too-distant future “may not know the state we call home” if the issue isn’t dealt with.

She wondered whether her grandchildren, when they reach her age, will still hear “the singsong call of a black-capped chickadee or the smell of asters and lilies.”

“Will they know what the bark of a fir tree looks like or the grit of sand between their toes as they walk along the shores of Perkins Cove? With butter on their lips and sun on their faces, will they taste Maine in lobsters caught off Casco Bay?” she asked.

That concern, she said last week in her State House office, is what’s driving her to make climate change one of her top priorities as governor, in striking contrast to her predecessor, Gov. Paul LePage, who expressed little concern about a warming planet during his eight years in office.

Spurred by visions of a Maine remade amid catastrophic environmental change, Mills has put the state back in the fight to preserve the climate with a series of steps to reduce carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels – and more in the works.

With a Democrat-controlled Legislature that is generally favorable to her agenda, Mills said the state must act swiftly and broadly on a range of climate-change initiatives “before it’s too late.”

Researchers warn that the world – not only Maine – is running out of time to make serious changes or face rising temperatures that will transform the environment.

Ivan Fernandez, a longtime science professor at the University of Maine, recently described for state lawmakers what climate change is already doing in the state.

“We have warming temperatures, shorter winters, less snow, a longer growing season, rising sea levels, the fastest warming oceans on the planet, intensifying storms and increasing uncertainty and variability in weather that burdens communities and businesses across Maine,” he said.

In addition, Fernandez warned, “most of these trends are accelerating.”

Mills said the growing threat from climate change is the reason she wants to address it.

“Why care about ticks invading our woods and our public parks?” she asked rhetorically. “Why care about kids with high asthma rates? Why care about lobsters off the coast moving north? Why care about the diminished fisheries in cod and shellfish and herring? Why care about rising sea levels?”

“Because it’s Maine,” she answered, “and we value our clean water and clean air. We value our public health.”

TRYING TO TACKLE A COMPLEX PROBLEM

Susan Inches, a former deputy director of the State Planning Office who is teaching courses at Bates and Colby colleges about the need for environmental advocacy, said the state has “a tremendous opportunity at hand.”

“After eight years of division, there’s a hunger among Maine people to find hope, and put Maine on a course that better serves everyone,” she recently told the Legislature’s Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.

As a first step, the new administration is trying to figure out in the broadest sense what its goals are.

Mills said she is aiming to ensure that Maine gets all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050, a standard that would require the development of far more solar and wind power. It may also rely on technology that doesn’t yet exist.

But the problem goes far beyond how electricity is generated, particularly since slightly more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions in Maine come from transportation, mostly cars and trucks.

In addition, more than two-thirds of Mainers heat their homes with oil, costing Mainers $5 billion a year and contributing to global warming.

Hannah Pingree, a former Maine House speaker who heads Gov. Janet Mills’ Office of Innovation and the Future, says the administration hopes to cut carbon emissions in the state by 45 percent by 2030. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Hannah Pingree, who heads Mills’ Office of Innovation and the Future, said the administration hopes to slash overall carbon emissions in Maine by 45 percent by 2030.

Melanie Loyzim, deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, told legislators recently that her department “supports a clear and aggressive target” for greenhouse gas emissions that would reach an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

Those are tough numbers to attain, officials readily acknowledge.

To get there, they say, will require a complex mix of policy initiatives, possibly ranging from floating offshore windmills to feeding Maine-grown seaweed to cows that might reduce the volume of methane the animals naturally produce.

A new Maine Climate Council will coordinate the state’s efforts to address the problem.

Pingree said the council will likely have six groups within its structure to deal with science, transportation, energy and electricity, buildings and infrastructure, working lands, and coastal and marine issues.

The working lands group, for example, would look into a range of issues, including possible measures to sequester carbon — capturing it before it enters the atmosphere — so that it doesn’t add to the rising greenhouse levels, Pingree said.

The coastal group would look at such problems as rising sea levels and how to make sure streets beside the water don’t wind up with ocean waves lapping on the pavement, she said.

Pingree said the council would be more than a one-time task force. The idea is to lock the structure into law and to update its plans regularly as more data and scientific input become available.

Mills said the bottom line is that coping with climate change in Maine requires dealing with three basic areas: electricity, transportation and home heating.

BRINGING IT HOME

For government leaders, issues as difficult as climate change can prove vexing, in part because they frequently require technical or scientific knowledge that few possess.

But sometimes, it’s a lot simpler than that.

For Mills, the advantages of switching from burning oil to using an electric heat pump are as obvious as her winter heating costs.

She said she plans to get a heat pump for her house in Farmington “because I’m tired of paying the oil bill.”

This month, she said, she actually ran out of oil — something many Mainers can sympathize with — and the bill to fill up her tank again “made me so mad.”

“This has got to stop,” Mills said she told herself. It shouldn’t cost her “thousands of dollars every winter in my home where it’s just me” much of the time.

A heat pump is the likeliest alternative, she said, because it will pay for itself pretty quickly.

Mills said many Mainers could benefit from doing the same, but people often can’t afford to buy them because even though they’d save over the long run, they don’t have the cash to make the initial investment.

Many people can’t afford proper heating, as it is.

Campaigning across Maine, Mills said she saw quite a few “scary situations” with gas heaters beside beds and people using ovens for heat.

That’s why, she said, she pushed for a $15 million allocation as part of a deal for her support for a controversial proposed transmission line to bring Hydro-Quebec electricity to Massachusetts, via Lewiston.

“My thinking was there’s a lot of middle-class people who buy heat pumps to put in their homes,” Mills said, but that’s not enough.

“I want to see every trailer park, every mobile home park, in Maine have heat pumps,” she said. “I want to see houses in the suburbs and ranch houses on the outskirts of the cities have heat pumps,” because their open construction, often on concrete slabs, make heat pumps the best option.

LOOKING FOR WAYS TO MEET CLIMATE TARGETS

Among the measures Mills is eyeing to reduce the state’s carbon footprint are more wind and solar energy production, along with the use of electric-powered vehicles.

Mills said solar “has come down in price” and is increasingly competitive with any alternative.

She said she is especially excited about the possibilities offered for community solar projects, such as putting panels on schools, churches, libraries, community centers and “other places the public gathers.”

The governor said more solar also means more jobs in the solar field, an area in which Maine lags behind Massachusetts and a number of other states.

“For the most part, these jobs attract younger people who are excited about what they do, excited to contribute to the betterment of the community and do something for the environment.” Mills said.

More wind-generated electricity is a virtual certainty, as well.

Turbines tower over the landscape at the Stetson wind farm in Danforth. Gov. Mills reversed LePage’s moratorium on wind-power projects because there is an existing regulatory system that can review proposals to ensure they benefit the public. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Mills said she moved quickly to reverse LePage’s moratorium on wind-power projects because there is an existing regulatory system that can review proposals adequately to ensure they will benefit the public.

She said she is also determined to press ahead in particular with the University of Maine’s wind energy project, Aqua Ventus, which would rely on “floating offshore wind platforms.”

“I don’t want to lose out on offshore wind,” Mills said.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins touted the project recently, as well, happy that she helped secure federal funds to allow a demonstration of the project off Monhegan Island, about 14 miles off Maine’s coast.

Rick Perry, the U.S. energy secretary, called the Aqua Ventus project a good first step.

He said that empowering states “to go develop these alternative sources of energy, whether it’s advanced nuclear reactors or whether it’s these offshore wind platforms, is very, very wise for us as a country.”

Transportation may be the toughest area for change in Maine, but officials said switching to cars, trucks and buses that rely on electricity would make a big dent in the state’s carbon output.

While less than 1 percent of Maine drivers rely on electric-powered vehicles today, Mills said the number is going to rise.

The state is putting money into programs to construct more charging stations, which Mills said will encourage tourism and help nudge people to give electric cars a shot.

In addition, Mills said, the state is going to help social service agencies buy electric vehicles. It’s doing the same with its own fleet.

Pingree said rebates for people who buy electric vehicles are also a possibility.

With everything in the works, the governor said, “Maine will be one of the top players in the electric vehicles” field, perhaps even the state with the most access to electric vehicles and charging stations.

“This is a way for people to save carbon and dollars,” Mills said.

Mills and Pingree said many possible approaches to climate change exist, and new ideas are emerging frequently.

“It’s very complicated. I don’t pretend to have all the answers,” Mills said.

But, she said, it’s important for the state to stay on top of the issue and to do what it can to limit the potentially dire impact of the changing climate.

It’s a job that will take decades, almost certainly lasting beyond the lifetimes of today’s leaders and perhaps even their children and grandchildren.

“I probably won’t be around then,” Mills said, “but I want to start us out on that road. Because we have to.”