AUGUSTA — When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the New York and New Jersey coasts last fall, killing 72 people and causing tens of billions in damage, many saw it as a wake-up call: The country is unprepared for the increased frequency and intensity of freak weather events — a long-predicted result of climate change — and a great deal of planning needs to be done to protect homes, infrastructure and businesses.
“Regardless of the cause of these storms, New York state must undertake major reforms to adapt to the reality that storms such as Sandy, Irene, and Lee can strike at any time,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said as he appointed three expert commissions to assess the state’s infrastructure and build a “comprehensive blueprint” to ensure it can survive such events.
Across New England as well, governments are drawing up detailed plans to prepare their states for the changing climate, which in this region is expected to get warmer and wetter.
In Maine, by contrast, Gov. Paul LePage’s administration has halted the creation of the state’s climate adaptation strategy, arguing it represents a waste of limited resources. Officials in the Department of Environmental Protection have ceased tracking progress on previously endorsed efforts to prepare the state for flooding, storms, early thaws and other observed effects of the changing climate.
“I think every state has to address how they want to go forward on this and the level of detail that works for them,” said DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho, who wants responsibility for any future climate adaptation plan to be taken away from her agency. “I look for guidance from the Natural Resources Committee (of the Legislature), because they are the ones who prioritize our workload. They did not ask for a briefing from us (on this issue) in the (Republican-controlled) 125th Legislature.”
With both houses of the Legislature now under Democratic control, the question of how best to prepare for the changing weather is being reopened, with Democrats proposing legislation that would direct the state to resume the drafting of a detailed plan as envisioned by Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s administration.
The central point of contention in the forthcoming debate is what role the state itself should play in preparing a game plan and coordinating and assisting efforts by towns, cities, businesses, citizens groups and government agencies to respond to present and predicted effects of the changing climate. At stake is the efficacy of those efforts, and the efficiency with which they are carried out.
In 2009, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a law directing the DEP to create a climate change report, which was completed and published in 2010. It contained 60 recommendations on actions the state needed to take to confront predicted climate change effects, the first of which was to draft a detailed climate adaptation plan. Legislators passed a second bill in 2010 directing the DEP to create this detailed plan by January 2012.
“There was certainly a sense after the initial report that there were issues that needed to be fleshed out, and that much more work was yet to be done to create an actual adaptation plan,” said David Littell, who was DEP commissioner under Baldacci.
“Everything from culverts to roads to bridges to businesses are being impacted by our changing weather,” said state Sen. Seth Goodall, D-Richmond, who championed the second plan as chairman of the Natural Resources Committee.
“If we don’t move forward and take this under consideration, we’re just going to fall behind, and the costs are going to increase significantly.”
Stakeholders agreed that having a detailed plan in place was essential both to take advantage of expected future federal funding for climate change-related activities and to have sound economic analysis of which of the many possible investments would offer the greatest benefit per dollar spent.
“A lot of places are ready to consider building a sea wall or a jetty to protect their business district, but they’re not able to take that action because they are lacking the kind of tools to know if those are good investments to make,” said Sam Merrill, director of the University of Southern Maine’s New England Environmental Finance Center.
“How much mitigation bang for the buck will you get for a given action? Should you build the sea wall, or does it make more sense to consider relocation? Those are the kinds of questions that could have emerged” from the plan.
At the DEP, deputy policy director Malcolm Burson started the task of creating the adaptation strategy and monitoring progress on the recommendations of the first report, which had been created in consultation with representatives from dozens of businesses and industry associations, from Bangor Hydroelectric to SkiMaine. (Future commissioner Aho, then a lobbyist at the law firm Pierce Atwood representing the American Petroleum Institute and other clients, took part as the representative of the state association of real estate developers.)
“There were lots of actions in the 2010 report — some spearheaded by state agencies, others in partnerships with the private sector and nongovernment organizations — but all of those were preliminary to the task of actually creating an adaptation plan going forward a couple of decades,” Burson said. “The 2010 report was a blueprint for how to create a plan.”
Burson didn’t get far.
On taking office in January 2011, LePage made it clear that climate-related issues were no longer a priority. “We made a conscious decision that (climate change) would take a back seat,” Darryl Brown, LePage’s first DEP commissioner, told a reporter for the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, which published a story on the policy changes in November 2012. (Brown resigned a few months later, after the attorney general ruled his former real estate development interests rendered him ineligible to hold the position.)
The Legislature, under Republican control, apparently agreed. By law, the DEP was to present the Natural Resources Committee with a progress report shortly after the change in administrations. The report was never submitted, but nobody at the Legislature complained.
“It never came up, really,” said state Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, who chaired the committee at the time. “There were some other, bigger day-to-day issues to take care of.”
After Aho was elevated from deputy commissioner to commissioner in June 2011, Burson received new marching orders. “She pretty much told me that in the current administration, climate change was not going to be an active priority and that I should not take any significant steps to implement the report,” he said.
Burson announced his resignation five months later. “Unfortunately, it has not been possible for the Department to exercise the leadership needed to … deliver a more comprehensive plan to the Governor and Legislature in January of 2012,” he wrote colleagues Nov. 15, 2011.
With a full adaptation report due in less than two months, the DEP staff discovered little, if anything, had been accomplished, internal emails obtained through a public records request show. Instead, they drafted a two-page memo that Aho signed and submitted to the Legislature in lieu of a report.
It reported that the DEP had “conducted education and outreach efforts” on the effects of climate change, and that other stakeholders had been taking some action on their own, and suggested they continue to do so.
“The limited resources of all stakeholders should be targeted toward continued implementation,” Aho’s Jan. 19, 2012, letter concluded, “rather than further document development.”
The department ceased tracking progress on the 2010 report, and no other state government entity is doing so, Aho said recently. For several months in 2012, the completed 2010 climate report was unavailable at the department’s website, having been deemed not to be “current information.” (It was restored after Burson wrote to his former colleagues to object.)
The commissioner also said she did not think it was possible to create the climate adaptation strategy as originally envisioned, as the State Planning Office, Land and Water Resources Council, and other state agencies that were to play key roles have since been dismantled by the administration.
“It’s very clear that many of the entities that are referred to in (the 2010 report) are not still in existence, so it begs the question of how we would implement those things,” she said.
Aho also said that if the Legislature ever directed a climate adaptation strategy to be created, she would argue that the DEP should not be in charge of it. Instead, she would like it to be run out of a newly created planning unit within the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
“I don’t have professional planners here other than our shoreland zoning staff, and I see them more as environmentalists than planners,” she said. “If this is a planning function, maybe this is something that should be taken on in a unit of a different department that you have created to undertake planning within the state of Maine.”
Democrats may push back
Experts disagree. Two national experts on climate adaptation said having a state-level strategy, plan and guidance is extremely valuable in tackling what are large-scale problems.
“Can cities, local organizations and businesses act without the state government providing leadership? The answer is ‘yes,’” said Rhett Lamb, planning director for the city of Keene, N.H., a national leader in local climate adaptation planning. “Are we less effective because of the lack of state leadership? The answer is also ‘yes.’”
Even within state government, having a coordinated plan can be essential, according to Kyle Aarons of the Arlington, Va.-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, the successor organization to the Pew Center on Climate Change.
“Many of the actions that will be taken cut across agencies, so you need to know who should do what to prioritize and avoid repeating work,” he said. “What’s so freaky about climate change is that the whole time we’re dealing with a moving target, so you have to be able to update and improve your plans even as you’re implementing it.”
Two first-time Democratic legislators appear to be taking an interest in the issue this session.
Rep. William Noon, D-Sanford, has proposed a bill — LD 825 — that would compel the DEP to restart work on the climate adaptation plan and turn it in by Feb. 27, 2015.
“Here in Sanford, we’re having 50-year storms every year,” Noon said. “I think they should continue the study, not just put a two-page report together and call it a day.”
Sen. James Boyle, D-Gorham, the new Natural Resources Committee chairman, said his colleagues want Aho to give them a briefing on the issue preliminary to “getting a sense of whether we want to move in a direction back toward requesting a plan.”
Saviello, the lead Republican on the committee, said he is concerned about how climate is affecting western Maine, and said he has been involved in local efforts to diversify the economy, should “we all of a sudden not have snow,” on which the skiing and snowmobile industries depend. “We had a wake-up call last year during the hurricane when we lost the bridges in Carrabassett Valley,” he said.
However, while he favors preparing for climate effects, Saviello said he was uncertain about whether a statewide plan is worth the additional expense.
“I’ve got bigger issues right now that are staring me in the face, and I have to focus on those things right now (at the state level) and work with communities to make a difference on the ground,” he said.
If Democrats act, they probably will want the coordinating role to stay with the DEP, despite Aho’s objections.
“The planning unit is still in its infancy and its role is still being defined,” said Goodall, who is now Senate majority leader. “Climate change is one of the greatest environmental issues of the day, and the notion that the DEP shouldn’t be leading the way is one that is probably not in the best interests of the state.”