Science is Alive and Well in Maine

January 25, 2021 | 3:26 pm
Jonathan Milne, Lighthawk
Ivan J. Fernandez
Professor, University of Maine Climate Change Institute

Over the past four years in the United States there has been an undeniable weakening of the role that science plays in climate change policy and beyond. As former Interior official and now UCS Senior Fellow Joel Clement describes, we’ve seen a “…thinning out of scientific capacity in the government…”, and the UCS careful inventory of Attacks on Science offers a more sober perspective of the deeply troubling evidence of the recent national trend. Similarly, here in Maine the prior governor all but halted efforts to address climate change in Maine despite the evidence at hand. However, if we have learned anything from COVID-19, it is that when the forces of nature and society line up, for good or bad, things can happen fast.

Science is now hard at work in Maine

In 2018 Mainers elected Governor Janet Mills, who embraced the role of science in her response to the climate crisis. In June of 2019, Governor Mills signed into law targets to reduce gross greenhouse gas emissions in Maine by 45% below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80% below the baseline by 2050. The legislation also notably called for action to enhance climate adaptation capacity in Maine to the escalating impacts of a changing climate. In addition, Governor Mills was the first sitting Maine Governor to address the United Nations General Assembly, where in September of 2019 she committed Maine by Executive Order to be carbon neutral by 2045. To achieve these goals, she established the 39-member Maine Climate Council, including two Maine scientists (one was me) among other members of state government and stakeholders.

Science as the foundation for the Maine Climate Council

The legislation established a Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STS) charged with providing the science to support Council decision-making. I was honored to co-chair the STS, comprised of 28 scientists widely recognized in their fields with specializations related to climate change and deep commitments and experiences in Maine. This was not a funded effort, but all the experts readily agreed to do this work to help Maine meet the climate crisis head on. The STS developed Maine-specific information on sea-level rise, biodiversity, and carbon cycling as well as evidence of change in Maine’s fisheries, farms, forests, and communities. The work of developing specific mitigation and adaptation strategies for the Maine Climate Council was embodied in six working groups, each with science representation as well as ongoing STS support throughout their process. While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and the National Climate Assessment provide important science, it was essential to have Maine-based scientific evidence to support Maine-based solutions.

While science is never the only factor considered when decisions are made about policies that affect people in everyday life, it is essential that management and policy decisions be informed by science in order to achieve successful outcomes. “Science informed” policy making requires that science be available in a timely, dependable and accessible manner, and to meet this requirement the STS provided an initial version of our report in February specifically for use by the Maine Climate Council early in their deliberations.

Despite the immense task within a 15-month timeline and in the midst of a pandemic, the volunteer scientists delivered our final assessment report in August, and the Action Plan was delivered on December 1, 2020. To underscore Maine’s momentum and commitment, the plan is titled Maine Won’t Wait.

Maine’s climate action plan is focused on:

  • data-driven outcomes to achieve the ambitious emissions reductions goals laid out in law
  • creating jobs as Maine undertakes climate and energy transitions
  • preparing people and communities for the impacts of climate change in an equitable manner

The conclusion of the planning process is really the beginning

The Plan now must be implemented: transformational, critical, difficult, and exciting work. Notably, all the working groups and the science subcommittee are ongoing entities in support of the implementation process and in preparation for the next plan in 2024. Throughout this process, scientists are an integral part of the deliberations including defining the boundary conditions of our scientific knowledge, reviewing drafts of emerging policies, providing feedback to the research community on information needs, and maintaining access to the latest science. The work of the Maine Climate Council is not static, and scientists have a seat at the table throughout the process.

The promise of a federal partner in the Biden administration makes me optimistic for our future. Science will bring humans some relief in 2021 with vaccines for the horror of the pandemic, and science is hard at work in Maine addressing the much larger and longer climate crisis consistent with the Maine motto Dirigo, which means “I Lead”!