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'No Doubt This Is Driven By Human Activity': Maine Groups React To UN Climate Change Report

UN Climate Report
Victor Caivano
In this Thursday, July 29, 2021 file photo, birds fly over a man taking photos of the exposed riverbed of the Old Parana River, a tributary of the Parana River during a drought in Rosario, Argentina. Parana River Basin and its related aquifers provide potable water to close to 40 million people in South America, and according to environmentalists the falling water levels of the river are due to climate change, diminishing rainfall, deforestation and the advance of agriculture.

A new, sobering report on climate change from the United Nations is drawing renewed calls for sweeping action in Maine. Science and advocacy organizations say a state plan unveiled in December is a good start, but they say more needs to be done to prevent dire consequences of climate change in Maine.

One of the major takeaways of the report for Greg Cunningham, the vice president for clean energy and climate change at the Conservation Law Foundation, is that the timeline to prevent the worst consequences from climate change is shorter than previously thought.

"Ya know some of the things I would particularly emphasize that to me are significant are the emphasis on the year 2030 as opposed to the year 2050 for meaningful action," Cunningham says.

Humans are impacting the earth's climate and causing unprecedented changes that affect every region of the globe. These findings from the report are not altogether surprising, says the director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, Paul Mayewski, but he says this report's message has more urgency - and scientific certainty - than previous reports.

"There's no doubt that this is driven by human activity. There is no doubt that we are going in the direction of greater warming. There is no doubt that we are going in the direction of a less stable climate," Mayewski says.

The earth's temperature has already risen 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Age, or two degrees Fahrenheit. That may not sound like much, but Dr. David Reidmiller , the director of the Climate Center at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, says it helps to compare the earth to the human body.

"Which in many ways, it kind of is. It has functioning systems, different organs. When our body has a fever, we certainly get concerned when it's just a degree or two out of range, and that's where earth's system is right now- it's two degrees out of range," Reidmiller says.

But unlike the human body, the planet can't bounce back quickly. Maine is already experiencing the consequences: the warming of the Gulf of Maine, which is driving species to cooler waters. Rising sea levels. Climate change is impacting the blueberry, maple syrup, and ski industries. Even seemingly innocuous occurrences, like those nice sunsets Maine has been getting over the past several weeks are caused by climate change, says Reidmiller.

"They're beautiful. But that beauty is, in part, caused by wildfire smoke traveling across the country either from central Canada or the west coast. And those wildfires are in part driven by drought and high heat conditions in the west," Reidmiller says.

Some of the natural solutions to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, such as forests and oceans that act as carbon sinks, will be less effective without strong, sustained action to reduce emissions. These are troubling findings, says Greg Cunningham of the Conservation Law Foundation. But there is a silver lining to an otherwise dire report. Just as humans have influenced climate changes, the report concludes that humans also have the potential to determine the future course of the climate. Cunningham says Maine is already taking positive steps. It's among five New England states that have laws that mandate reductions in emissions.

"That planning is essential on a state to state basis, and I would suggest even more important on a regional basis, where we do have a consensus in this region," Cunningham says.

Governor Janet Mills issued a statement in response to the UN's report, saying the state "must act now to mitigate the very real and dangerous impacts of climate change." The administration says the state is working to create a clean energy economy, and Mills praised bipartisan efforts to turn a climate plan into action. Jack Shapiro of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, says that action plan, unveiled in December, is good progress.

"Moving towards clean energy, starting to take on changes that we need in our transportation system, which is the biggest source of carbon emissions in our state," Shapiro says.

But Shapiro says federal investment is needed to be successful in mitigating the climate crisis. And for those wondering what to do on a personal level, Greg Cunningham of the Conservation Law Foundation says ten years ago, he would have urged individual actions, such as drive an electric car, or reduce electricity use. Those are still important, but he says what's much more important is "the collective action we can take to bring to bear on our government, on our politicians, pressure and encouragement to do the right thing and move us in the right direction."

We're at a tipping point, Cunningham says. Recognition of the need to address climate change isn't yet what it needs to be, but it's better than it's ever been.