State Rep. Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) says she proposed a Green New Deal bill for Maine after hearing so many of her district's residents express concern for how climate change will affect their daily lives. LD 1282 is designed to expedite Maine’s transition to renewable energy in an equitable manner that creates economic opportunities for residents. Photo by Fred Field.

Charged up for change

Young people and workers are leading efforts to create a Green New Deal for Maine that would redefine the state's energy and economic landscapes

by | April 11, 2019

“The whole society that we seek is one in which all men live in brotherhood with each other and with their environment. It is a society where each member of it knows that he has an opportunity to fulfill his greatest potential. It is a society that will not tolerate slums for some and decent houses for others… clean air for some and filth for others. It is the only kind of society that has a chance. … To achieve a whole society – a healthy total environment – we need change, planning, more effective and just laws and more money better spent.”

Senator Edmund Muskie, addressing a rally on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970

U.S. Sen. Edmund Muskie advocated for environmental justice before the term was coined, recognizing the need for a “whole society” supported by “effective and just” laws.

As in 1970, when environmental activism gave rise to the first Earth Day observance, citizens today are calling for climate action. A March 15 climate strike mobilized roughly 1.5 million people in more than 100 countries.

In Augusta, the impetus for change appears in a spring flood of climate-related bills – with legislators considering more than 70 proposed measures related to solar energy, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, renewable energy policy, greenhouse gas reductions, renewable portfolio standards, building energy codes and electricity transmission and distribution.

The number of bills doesn’t strike seasoned observers like Dylan Voorhees, climate and clean energy project director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, as that unusual. What’s new, he says, is “how much is happening that’s pointed in the same direction. That’s certainly unprecedented.”

A majority of Americans (58 percent) now view a transition from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean, renewable energy as vital to reducing pollution, and 72 percent cite it as important in “providing a better life for our children and grandchildren,” according to a December 2018 survey by the Yale Program on Climate Communications, findings echoed by a March Gallup poll.  

A special report released in October by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the window of opportunity for feasible and affordable actions to prevent catastrophic climate damage is closing fast – within 10 to 12 years.

“There is very strong evidence that we need to act now,” says Colby College emeritus economics professor Thomas Tietenberg, noting that delaying action a decade could raise the cost of reaching a given target by 40 percent. The risk of inaction is even greater, he says, because “most of the economic models do not include tipping points [past which warming could become uncontrollable].”

With concern escalating and time dwindling, there’s renewed demand – at federal, state and local levels – for systemic change that would redefine the energy landscape. In Augusta, decision makers are discussing what this transition must accomplish and who should be at its center.

A just transition

In a legislative bid that involved knocking on almost 10,000 doors, state Rep. Chloe Maxmin (D-Nobleboro) says she heard concerns voiced about creating good jobs, providing help to those who need it and protecting the natural resources that support the state’s economy.

“Echoed in so many conversations,” she says, was concern about how climate change will affect the daily lives of people already struggling to heat their homes and pay their property taxes.

Maxmin responded by proposing a Green New Deal bill (LD 1282), designed to expedite Maine’s transition to renewable energy in an equitable manner that creates economic opportunities for residents. Her bill is “aligned with” the national GND effort, she says, but also distinct.

The GND resolution proposed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) envisions a mobilization of effort akin to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s far-ranging response to the Great Depression. Their values-based vision seeks to encompass the “whole society” elements Muskie recognized: the need for decent jobs and health care, income and racial equality, and clean air and water as essential rights.

The federal GND resolution is sparking controversy.

“This resolution has generated more debate about climate change in three weeks than we’ve had in the last nine years,” Markey observed in an interview last month.

It’s an immensely positive contribution to put bold ideas on the table, ones commensurate with what science is telling us about the seriousness of what is at stake.”

— Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO

Despite that controversy, Maxmin says she named her bill to “draw attention to a different way of talking about climate change, accenting a perspective that is often left out of conversation and most importantly policy.” Her GND bill proposes both a short-term task force to shape a plan for expanding both “green jobs” training and incentives to install solar energy systems and heat pumps, as well as an ongoing “Commission on a Just Transition to a Low-carbon Economy.”

Unlike the federal resolution, Maine’s GND bill calls for specific measures, including a doubling in renewable energy supply sources for retail electricity sales in Maine by 2040 (up to 80 percent from just over 40 percent now), along with measures to encourage solar installations on Maine’s public schools.

The commitment to address “a deeply unequal economy” as part of an energy transition is critical, says Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “It’s an immensely positive contribution to put bold ideas on the table, ones commensurate with what science is telling us about the seriousness of what is at stake.”

FDR’s original New Deal involved a “massive scale of investment” and a rewriting of economic rules, Schlobohm says, launching Social Security, the minimum wage, the right to organize a union and other initiatives that “saved millions from the indignity of poverty and hunger.”

Citing the key roles that politically active workers and Roosevelt’s longtime Secretary of Labor had in “that long list of accomplishments,” Schlobohm adds, “we need both to build a mass movement and to figure out who is the Frances Perkins of this moment.”

There may be more than one, he notes, and they could emerge now that the labor movement has begun pushing for more economic and climate justice. Michael Cavanaugh, a strategic advisor with the Labor Network for Sustainability and longtime union organizer in Maine and Washington, D.C., says his message to union members nationwide is “that the energy transition needs to happen and is going to happen; either it will happen with us or to us.”

Cavanaugh is frustrated with critiques about the Green New Deal being “too big, too much, too vague.” The fragmented policy approaches to date, he says, have been “spectacularly unsuccessful in addressing inequality and climate change,” and “these twin crises” demand a “bold response.”

While acknowledging that there’s great diversity and a range of perspectives within the labor movement, Cavanaugh finds many people now sense the immediacy of climate change.

“It’s enormous, it’s everywhere and you can’t help but see it. There’s a lot of energy, enthusiasm and concern everywhere about addressing climate change and income inequality,” he adds, “particularly among young people.

“Moral clarity and bravery”

That concern will be voiced at the Statehouse on April 23 during a midday rally young people are organizing and in an afternoon hearing on the GND bill before the Legislature’s Energy, Utilities and Technology Committee.

“The Youth Day of Action is a chance for youth to connect with legislators and get politically active,” says 12-year-old activist Anna Siegel, a seventh-grader at the Friends School in Cumberland. Often politicians only look to the next election cycle, she says, but “we’re looking decades ahead.”

Activist Anna Siegel, seventh-grader at the Friends School in Cumberland. Photo by Fred Field.

Activist Anna Siegel, seventh-grader at the Friends School in Cumberland. Photo by Fred Field.

Having a GND bill under consideration is an uplifting step, Siegel adds, but she’d like to see even more ambitious targets for renewable energy than those currently in the bill.

Haley Crim, a Bates College senior juggling work with climate advocacy and her senior thesis about renewable energy in Lewiston, agrees. “From where I sit as a young person, we should go as hard as we can,” she says, arguing that a faster timeline for independence from fossil fuels is “more in line with current climate science.”

Haley Maurice, a Bowdoin College junior who is active in a campus climate group, a statewide youth climate justice coalition and the national Sunrise Movement, believes Maine provides a “unique place for setting an example,” both because of its Democratic trifecta and because “climate impacts are especially real here,” with potential for significant economic repercussions in natural resource-based industries.  

With the GND bill, “Maxmin is committed to giving youth a greater political voice," Maurice says, “because she fundamentally believes those most affected by the climate crisis need to have a seat at the table.”

Maxmin applauds the “moral clarity and bravery” of young people in standing up to established institutions. She understands the challenges of that work, having done climate justice organizing herself for nearly 15 years – which, as she notes, is “most of her life,” given that she’s 26.

Maine’s younger climate activists aren’t confining their efforts to a single day at the Statehouse. Crim says groups are going to district Congressional offices every Friday now “in solidarity with Greta Thunberg,” the Swedish teenager who helped ignite global climate strikes among youth starting with her solitary Friday vigils outside the Parliament in Stockholm.

Some students have already visited with legislators this session, and Siegel has met with Gov. Janet Mills’ cabinet member Hannah Pingree to find out about plans for youth representation on the proposed Maine Climate Council. That group is charged – in Pingree’s words – with considering “how to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and transitions to renewable energy in a way that grows Maine jobs and the economy” while also weighing “impacts on low- and moderate-income ratepayers” and considering “the challenges of future adaptation.”

Pingree confirms that the council will have one youth representative and says its six working groups – focused on science/technology, transportation, energy/electricity, buildings/infrastructure/efficiency, working lands and coastal/marine topics – may have additional youth participants.

Even so, Siegel recognizes that a single youth member might be marginalized so she’s working with a friend and fellow organizer on preliminary plans for a “Youth Climate Council.”

Staci Coomer, an organizer with the Maine nonprofit A Climate to Thrive, helps young activists connect with decision makers. Young people, she says, keep asking “What are you doing that’s going to bring all this together? What’s the big picture?”

Insights from another state

The state of Washington made national news last year by proposing to use a carbon-emissions fee to fund a faster and more just transition to clean energy. The initiative drew support from more than 400 groups and demonstrated that the “business versus environment framework no longer applies,” reflects KC Golden, a climate policy leader in the Northwest (who worked in Maine decades ago). “The business community really distanced itself,” he notes, from the fossil fuel interests that contributed 99 percent of the $31 million spent to defeat the measure.

“Everyone likes the idea of a clean energy future but can be intimidated into thinking it’s not accessible or affordable to them,” Golden says, so new energy proposals “need to be for everybody – incorporating rural economic opportunities, heating assistance, and help with transportation costs. When people believe there’s life after oil and can see it working for them, then we win.”

The energy transition needs to happen and is going to happen; either it will happen with us or to us.”

— Michael Cavanaugh, strategic advisor with the Labor Network for Sustainability

Carbon pricing, whether cap-and-trade measures like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative or carbon fee and dividend programs, can help to reduce fossil-fuel use and redistribute funds to those temporarily hurt because of their heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

But Golden sees efforts to make that the centerpiece of a new energy vision as “extremely unwise and unfortunate. The fossil-fuel industry narrative on clean energy,” he notes, is that ‘it’s not really affordable or ready for prime time and you’ll pay more for gas.’ You almost couldn’t pick a better name for this narrative than carbon pricing.”

State Rep. Deane Rykerson (D-Kittery) encountered the challenge of that story line when he submitted a bill this session to institute a carbon fee on fuels sold by distributors within Maine. His bill didn’t make it out of committee, with even its supporters advocating further study. Rykerson is meeting now with legislators beyond Maine to explore ways to coordinate future carbon-pricing approaches among states.

Converting to electric transportation and heating could transform Maine, Golden says, if the $5 billion now exported in fossil fuel payments circulated instead through the local economy. The state should “double down on its historic advantage of relatively economic electricity [it has the lowest average price in New England],” he adds, electrifying not just private vehicles but buses and ferries.

It’s also important to look beyond the “wow factor of renewables,” Golden says, to less glamorous but reliable mechanisms for reducing fossil fuel use: improving energy efficiency (“always the first and best solution is wasting less”), raising renewable portfolio standards, improving building energy codes (“an immensely effective tool” that Golden claims has been the “backbone of the energy transition in the Northwest”) and ensuring that Maine’s Public Utilities Commission “drives the huge percentage of our energy dollars that flow through [utility] doors in the right direction, redirecting toward solutions.”

Some bills this session address those measures and aim for better metrics to measure carbon reductions over time. There’s a growing recognition, Voorhees says, that the state needs “not just hopes and prayers but accountability and authority to act.” The anticipated update of the state’s 2004 Climate Action Plan may help establish baselines against which future progress can be measured. 

Convergence

What’s challenging now for Mainers is to see how all the disparate energy and climate bills at the state level might coalesce into a unified energy plan supporting the “healthy total environment” Muskie envisioned almost 50 years ago.

Having faced similar struggles in the Pacific Northwest, Golden emphasizes the importance of a shared commitment to “rise to the challenge of the climate crises we’re in and support an economy that delivers rewards more fairly.”

He might have framed the Green New Deal differently, he acknowledges, but says “someone seized the initiative and I’m all behind them.” Maxmin herself sees great potential for “collaboration and coordination with other bills and Governor Mills’ initiatives,” adding “we’re all in this together.”

What’s most important, notes Siegel, is that concerns for the future are now “being brought to the table.” With an expanding climate movement and substantive planning underway in Augusta, Maurice says, “we’re seeing a possibility we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Author

Marina Schauffler

Marina Schauffler is a writer and editor who explores the complex interconnections between ecology and culture. Since 2014, she has written the column “Sea Change” about the challenges of living sustainably in Maine. She holds a Ph.D. in natural resources and a master's in creative nonfiction writing. Find more of her work at www.naturalchoices.com.

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