Imagine Maine without lobsters. Or if the state’s trademark forest were devastated by drought and non-native pests.

Imagine if Mainers didn’t have clean water to drink, or if the summer air were unhealthy to breathe during persistent heat waves. Imagine if tourists stopped coming to Maine because they couldn’t depend on their favorite beach or picturesque harbor town to be above water.

Avoiding this vision of the state’s future is what’s behind the Maine Climate Council’s four-year plan for action, called “Maine Can’t Wait.” The comprehensive study, put together by scientists, lawmakers, business leaders and environmental activists, was released last week. The report outlines what Maine faces if current trends are allowed to continue, and the kind of changes the state would have to make in transportation, building practices and energy generation to achieve the goals.

The report is remarkable both for its scope and for its specificity. The recommendation that got the most press was a commitment to put 41,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2025, and 219,000 by 2030, which would be a transformational achievement considering that fewer than 800 electric vehicles were sold in the state in 2018. A similarly ambitious plan calls for an incentive program that would install 130,000 high-efficiency electric heat pump systems by 2030, subsidizing at least 15,000 units in income-eligible households.

Grabbing fewer headlines, but potentially just as transformative, is the section of the report that deals with making Maine communities more resilient to the coming changes. Even best-case scenarios predict significant sea-level rise; warmer, wetter winters, and more severe storms. Both coastal and inland communities will need to be ready to manage flooding with well-designed infrastructure.

None of this will be easy. Maine’s tradition of local control requires that most of these projects will have to be originated on the local level. Only 11 percent of Maine municipalities have a town planner on staff, and don’t have the highly technical work needed to determine what needs to be done.

The climate council recommends that the state take a leadership goal in working with local governments, giving them the support services and financing to make the kind of investments needed to become more resilient.

The council recommends the state conduct a infrastructure vulnerability assessment by 2023, and develop climate resilient design standards. The state should also update its land-use regulations and laws, giving local governments guidance they need to make good decisions about how to direct growth in a changing environment.

The council recommends the creation of an Infrastructure Adaptation Fund, which would provide grants to local agencies, including funds as soon as next year for predevelopment studies. The report does not say how much would be needed, but in the rollout presentation, Gov. Mills said the state should issue bonds to get started on this work

As this is debated in the Legislature, it’s important to remember that there is no low-cost option when it comes to climate change. We hope that Maine can avoid the devastating impact that extreme warming would have on the health of Mainers or on our fisheries, forests and tourism industries. But even if we do everything in our power to slow the rate of warming, we will still have to respond to a changing climate, either through responsible planning or by reacting to catastrophic damage. It’s a safe bet that the second approach would cost us more.


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