Brunswick forum examines links between business, climate

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BRUNSWICK — About 350 people gathered at Bowdoin College on June 12 to discuss two changing aspects of the state’s identity: its climate and its economy.

“This is an attempt to try to marry these two conversations that have been happening separately … and make them one,” said event organizer Alan Caron, of the nonprofit Envision Maine.

The meeting, “Maine’s Economy and Climate Change,” which Caron called a “big town meeting,” featured talks by people ranging from university scientists to fishermen.

It was opened by a prerecorded video message from U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.

“I just don’t understand why and how (climate change) became a partisan political issue,” King said. “To me, it’s just numbers.”

But, he stressed, despite impacts like sea level rise, more frequent storms, and ocean acidification, some changes could be “positive.”

For example, melting Arctic sea ice is a “big deal for ports,” with “big potential for Maine.”

King described how the northern shipping route from Asia to the East Coast of the U.S. or Europe is shorter than the current route through the Panama Canal.

“If ever there were a case of we’re all in it together, this is it,” he added.

The other speakers of the day followed King’s tone: highlighting impacts, and presenting opportunities.

Ivan Fernandez, a soil scientist from the University of Maine, outlined key benchmarks of how Maine’s environment is changing.

In the past century, average temperature has gone up three degrees, he said. This has affected Maine’s seasons: on average, the growing season is now two weeks longer, and the harvesting season two weeks shorter.

More southerly tree and plant species are moving northward, he said, along with insect-borne diseases. There were just over 100 reported cases of Lyme disease in 2009; in 2014, that number has rocketed up to almost 1,400.

Similar changes can be found in the ocean.

Andrew Pershing, lead scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said that in the past 10 years, the Gulf of Maine has been warming 99 percent faster than the rest of the world’s oceans.

Fishermen have reported catching southern species like squid, hake, and black sea bass in their nets. The sea bass, he said, are known to prey on lobsters.

“Maine is starting to look a lot more like New Jersey,” Pershing said.

Dan Reicher, director of energy policy and finance at Stanford University and one of the event’s keynote speakers, said direct investment can go into fixing climate change.

“When we make it work,” he said, “there’s big money to be made.”

Reicher described changes in the landscape of the U.S. energy industry, and highlighted what he called business “opportunities.”

He cited huge declines in the cost of implementing solar and wind power, and the fact that the solar industry created more jobs than the coal industry in 2014.

He alluded to the idea of the “clean trillion,” saying that’s the amount that needs to be invested between now and 2050 to limit a rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius.

“Clean tech stock is up, and coal stock is down,” he said. “We’ve done this before … we powered our country on wood, and then moved to coal, and then oil and natural gas.”

In parts of California, Reicher said, people with electric cars can charge their vehicles overnight at off-peak rates, and then sell that electricity back to the grid when the car is plugged in at work when demand is higher.

He ended his remarks with a comment from the early computer scientist Alan Kay.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” Reicher said.

A large portion of the day was devoted to business people talking about changes they’ve observed, and created, in Maine’s economic climate.

Richard Nelson, who has lobstered out of Friendship Harbor for more than 30 years, said “the ocean is a workplace … our cultural heritage.”

He said fishermen are among the first to notice the effects of environmental changes like ocean acidification and migratory predators, but also the “first to be displaced by the renewable energy projects that try to combat it,” referring to off-shore wind turbines.

He stressed the importance of sparking new kinds of job creation, like estuary restoration to support tourism, fish nurseries, and storm protection.

“We need a clear vision of what we want from our ocean and the courage to make necessary choices,” Nelson said.

Vaughn Woodruff, owner of the solar installation company Insource Renewables, took the podium to describe a different type of climate change for Maine: “Maine’s economic climate change.”

“The town I live in now looks very different than the town I grew up in,” the Pittsfield native said. “That’s what drives me.”

He touched on Maine’s demographic winter, noting Maine has the highest median age in the nation, and said “we are exporting 98 percent of (our young people) with upward mobility.”

“The real crisis is the Main streets … in the rural portions of this state,” Woodruff said. “Energy is a key piece to me to reverse this trend.”

He called for a “local energy movement.”

Summarizing the purpose of the event, Caron said “we like to bring people who care about Maine in different ways to one place.

“We start from there,” he said, “and then get to the work we have to do.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Sidebar Elements

Nearly 350 people attended “Maine’s Economy and Climate Change,” organized by Envision Maine at Bowdoin College’s Thorne Hall in Brunswick.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.