It was a strange scene to encounter on a January night in Maine, sitting in my car among more than 100 other parked vehicles, all populated but dark, at a drive-in town meeting.
Townspeople had gathered, following COVID safety protocol, to consider a contract to upgrade the energy efficiency of municipal buildings. Administrators worked their way painstakingly through five articles, including a resolution supporting the state’s new Climate Action Plan, inviting questions and comments on each.
Proceedings aired over a radio channel, and those who wanted to ask questions or make comments flashed headlights and awaited a microphone. As the deliberations dragged on and a raw wind worked its way into the car, I pondered President Biden’s recent declaration that “It’s time for boldness.” Coldness, certainly, but would we be bold?
When vehicle windows lowered just enough for gloved hands to wave green voting cards aloft, each measure passed by an impressive margin. Work will begin as soon as the weather warms; time is running short.
So much hinges on the next decade
To stabilize the planet’s temperature, “the most important two decades are the one we’ve just finished,” author and activist Bill McKibben recently wrote, “and the one we’ve just begun.”
The Biden-Harris administration recognizes – as no previous administration has – that climate action is a limited-time offer. Cold January nights notwithstanding, the past seven years have been the planet’s hottest on record, making Earth hotter than it has been since human civilization began.
If that trend continues, ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica could cause catastrophic sea-level rise. Two recent scientific papers suggest that the mass of ice lost to date has been significantly underestimated.
Surfing the federal wave to advance climate initiatives
Realizing that the climate crisis is “the existential threat of our time,” Biden is making it a focus across every governmental agency, and is redirecting money for climate resilience to vulnerable communities nationwide.
Biden has already signed numerous executive orders advancing climate initiatives, including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, strengthening environmental justice and job creation, and weighing climate considerations in foreign policy and national security.
Plans are underway for a Civilian Climate Corps, mobilizing a “new generation of Americans to work conserving and restoring public lands and waters, increasing reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protecting biodiversity, improving access to recreation, and addressing the changing climate.” That sort of workforce could help struggling rural communities, like many in Maine, better prepare for weather extremes and rising seas.
The new administration wants clean energy to revitalize the nation’s economy and infrastructure, and may use the budget reconciliation process to advance those efforts, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.), incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee.
Recent polling by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows support: 72 percent of respondents favored transitioning the U.S. economy (including electric utilities, transportation, buildings and industry) from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
Business and industry are increasingly coming aboard, with GM – for example – recently committing to produce only electric cars, vans and sport utility vehicles by 2035. Investing giant BlackRock now expects businesses to disclose a plan for how – by 2050 – they will have eliminated net greenhouse gas emissions. And a “Mission Possible Partnership” with 400 companies in carbon-intensive industries is helping those firms achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Even the Federal Reserve has created a climate committee, another signal that the financial system is taking this threat seriously.
Implementing a bold state climate plan
Following an intensive push last year to determine how best to cut 80 percent of Maine’s carbon emissions by 2050, the state is poised to begin implementing its four-year road map, “Maine Won’t Wait.” The timing is fortuitous, given new opportunities for federal climate funding.
Numerous bills and bond proposals are being developed to advance the plan, but for its 50-plus recommendations to work, climate considerations must be suffused across all state agencies. As at the federal level, Maine needs a “whole of government” approach to tackling the climate crisis.
To begin that process, Rep. Vicki Doudera (D-Camden) is proposing a bill that would require state agencies – such as the Public Utilities Commission, Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Transportation — to factor climate and equity into policymaking and ensure that their decisions don’t cause adverse climate impacts.
The PUC’s enabling statute, for example, only requires that the commission ensure low consumer rates, a profit for utilities and a reliable grid, so measures coming before the PUC that offer significant long-term climate benefits can be denied. The proposed bill would require a statutory change to better align PUC decisions – and those of other agencies – with Maine’s climate goals.
Investing now for a more stable future
At our drive-in town meeting, people voiced concern that investing in energy efficiency made no sense during an economic downturn, an argument that will likely be leveled at climate-related bonds in coming months. This view fails to account for the staggering cost that climate change will inflict – and the fact that tab will rise markedly the longer we delay. The reinsurance company Munich Re recently calculated the U.S. cost of climate-related disasters in 2020 at $95 billion, nearly twice the 2019 figure.
The economic push to action is matched by an ecological pull – a hopeful update from climate scientists about the earth’s capacity to recuperate. New evidence challenges the former assumption that global warming would likely continue for generations, even after greenhouse gas emissions dropped. Now it’s becoming clear that the carbon-absorbing capacity of oceans, forests and wetlands could help stabilize the planet’s temperature fairly rapidly.
That realization provides added incentive to pursue net-zero carbon emissions with the utmost speed. The sooner we hit ambitious climate targets in communities and nations worldwide, the better off the Earth will be.