Gov. Janet Mills told world leaders gathered Monday at the United Nations that Maine will not wait to take bold action to address climate change and challenged them to do the same before announcing she intends to make the state carbon neutral by 2045.

“We’ve got to unite to preserve our precious common ground, for our common planet, in uncommon ways for this imperative common purpose,” she said at the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit. “Maine won’t wait. Will you?”

Mills announced from the podium that she has signed an executive order directing the Maine Climate Council – a body she created with legislative approval – to provide recommendations on how to make the state a carbon neutral economy by 2045, an initiative that follows previous recent commitments to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.

She said Maine has enacted “the most significant renewable standards in the country,” invested in renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon sequestration efforts and the development of floating offshore wind platforms. “We are doing these things now, because we believe the irrefutable science,” she said.

“These investments will not impair our economy,” she said. “They will improve it.”

Of the 93 speakers invited to speak at the U.N. General Assembly Monday by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Mills was the only U.S. elected official from any level of government. Only three other Americans spoke: Microsoft founder Bill Gates, former New York mayor and current U.N. Special Envoy for Climate Action Michael Bloomberg, and John Haley, CEO of Willis Towers Watson, the world’s third largest insurance brokerage.

Most of the other speakers Monday were heads of state, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mills, the first sitting Maine governor ever to address the U.N. General Assembly, spoke directly after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.

It is unclear how Mills, the Democratic governor of a state of just 1.3 million people, was chosen to be the public sector voice of the United States at the global event, but something about her climate action plan clearly drew the attention of U.N. leaders.

“I think they were looking for a governor who would help represent the American perspective that we are trying to make progress despite Washington saying something different,” Hannah Pingree, co-chair of the Maine Climate Council, said via telephone from U.N. headquarters Monday. “She’s new, she’s from a rural state, and she’s been very forceful about the need to act, which probably made her a good candidate.”

Mills received an invitation Sept. 17 from Guterres’ special summit envoy, Luis Alfonso de Alba, who said the summit would present “the most ambitious and most transformative initiatives to tackle climate change.”

“We aim to showcase examples that a shift in the real economy is happening and highlight meaningful approaches to help people to adapt,” de Alba wrote. “I would be honored if you could come to the summit and give remarks on Maine’s carbon neutrality efforts.”

U.N. representatives did not respond to an interview request Monday.

At the U.N., Mills’ voice was hoarse at times – the result of speaking with constituents at the Farmington Fair this weekend – but didn’t break, and her appearance drew praise from climate action advocates.

“Maine has just sprinted from the back to the front of the pack in record time, and it’s turned heads around the world,” said Joel Clement, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “It’s had a big effect on the degree of climate action evident in American politics, but the turnaround itself has given people hope that such a correction could also occur at the national level.”

A Maine native, Clement earned national attention as a climate official at the Department of Interior, when he filed whistleblower complaints against the Trump administration’s suppression of climate efforts.

After years of inaction under Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Maine took a big step when Mills signed a climate action bill into law June 26 that requires the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and by at least 80 percent by 2050.

It also created the 35-member climate council, which is tasked with developing specific plans to meet these goals, as well as monitoring the effects of ocean acidification, warming ocean temperatures, and changes in the salt and dissolved oxygen content of the gulf, an expected side effect of warming. It has its first meeting Thursday in Hallowell.

Maine is at the forefront of climate change because the Gulf of Maine is the second fastest-warming part of the entire world ocean. The rapid warming, a side effect of climate change and the Arctic meltdown, is expected to have dramatic effects on the marine ecosystem and the communities that rely on it and is already adversely effecting clammers, aquaculture operations, and the recovery of cod stocks.

The U.N. summit aimed to prod countries to take action to meet the targets in the Paris climate treaty, which President Trump withdrew from on taking office, making the U.S. the only country in the world that is not participating.

Global greenhouse gas emissions hit a record high in 2018.

“We’ve got to unite to preserve our precious common ground, for our common planet, in uncommon ways for this imperative common purpose,” Mills said in the closing line of her remarks.

The governor, who arrived in New York early Monday, will attend a meeting on climate change efforts with European Union officials and a panel discussion with other governors Tuesday before returning to Maine.

 

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