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UNH Professor Says Small, Local Decisions Can Have A Significant Role In Slowing Climate Change

Robert F. Bukaty
The Cat ferry arrives in Portland Harbor, motoring by Portland Head Light, Friday, Sept. 7, 2018, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

University of New Hampshire professor and Portland resident Vanessa Levesque says that small municipal decisions can play a significant role in ensuring that towns and cities remain resilient in the face of climate change. Levesque is taking part in the Gulf of Maine 2050 International Symposium, which focuses on the science of climate change, but she says social factors might be just as important when confronting issues like rising sea levels and warming waters. 

She spoke with Maine Public’s Ed Morin.

Levesque: I have been thinking recently about how smaller towns are in this funny spot. Small towns don't have a lot of capacity; there's not many people working for them, they have fewer resources, and yet, of course everyone who lives in those towns wants to be prepared for climate change.

In New Hampshire, one way I've seen success is by the Regional Planning Commissions being able to provide resources, technical assistance, grants to help those small municipalities take these steps to move forward. And so here in Maine, I think by reinvesting in our Regional Planning Commissions would be a great step to moving us forward.

Morin: Now your work looks at the actions municipalities can take to address climate change, and I'm wondering what some of those actions are?

I specifically look at the role of small municipalities, which is different than what larger cities can do, of course. Like we're not talking about public transportation when we're talking about smaller towns here in Maine or New Hampshire. Instead, we're looking at maybe some historic downtowns that happened to be built near the coast that are going to be impacted. And so the municipality might need to focus on something that is location specific to that municipality. So how can they protect those coastal homes or the coastal businesses? Or something along those lines, some of our peninsulas, or, you know, identifying which of those roads are likely to be covered and storm surge and sea level rise, and figuring out a plan to deal with that so we don't have stranded residents.

If you're talking about trying to protect homes that are at the coast or the roads that might get washed over, all of a sudden you're talking about things that can be very significant, very pricey.

Yeah, most of these municipalities are going to need to collaborate with state and federal entities to get funding to do those kind of big projects like elevating a road or something like that. But municipalities can do some small things in the meantime. They can pass some regulations that require new buildings to be elevated a certain amount. They could relook at their emergency management systems and make some improvements to that thinking, about how are we going to get to our most vulnerable populations? So there are smaller actions that a municipality can take.

Primarily, are we concerned about sea level rise here? And if not, what else should we be thinking about?

The thing about climate change is it's very place specific. So there are going to be some coastal towns for which sea level rise and the storm surge cause the most damage. But some of our other communities in which fishing is a huge part of the economy have to also think about warming temperatures of the ocean and increased acidification of the ocean, and what's that doing to their fisheries?

What barriers do you see that are going to make it more difficult to try to do what you think should be done?

Well, there's a couple levels of barriers. One of the barriers is developing the political will — we're going to need to make some of the bigger changes. That's going to require some funding and just some decision making that is going to be a little bit harder. We can do it.

I think one of the ways we can do it is by not talking about climate change and the associated impacts as this separate thing, but rather talking about how it impacts the other concerns people have may already have: how they're going to pay their bills or the education of their children, you know, how is climate intersecting with all of those things? I think that's how we'll develop that political will to make some decisions.

There are people who, in fact, deny that climate change even exists. So how do you get collaboration? How do you break down these barriers in the face of that?

Honestly, we need to find new ways of engaging. Research shows that better information, or even better communication of our information, doesn't change people's minds and doesn't spur action.

We need to really address where people are coming from and what their primary concerns are. And at some level, maybe it doesn't matter if people believe in climate change, maybe what matters is that we're having some impacts. We're seeing more flooding, we are right now having roads that are not accessible. Let's deal with that. And maybe that's the way to go for some people.

Interestingly, a colleague of mine is involved with a theater company right now that's doing this really interesting, research inspired theater where people act out different perspectives related to climate change and what they feel about it. And it's a great way to get people to talk and think about this issue. That's different than reading a report in the newspaper or the traditional way.

The Gulf of Maine 2050 International Symposium continues throughout the week.

Ed note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ed is a Maine native who spent his early childhood in Livermore Falls before moving to Farmington. He graduated from Mount Blue High School in 1970 before going to the University of Maine at Orono where he received his BA in speech in 1974 with a broadcast concentration. It was during that time that he first became involved with public broadcasting. He served as an intern for what was then called MPBN TV and also did volunteer work for MPBN Radio.