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Environment and Outdoors
A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time.

A southern Maine group hopes to get 10 million kids involved in climate change action

Carol Bousquet
Maine Public
Students in the Gulf of Maine Field Studies class at Kennebunk High School dig for crabs in Cape Porpoise in September.

Tens of thousands of young people took to the streets of Glasgow on Friday to express their frustration with the United Nations' climate summit and the lack of progress to drastically cut global carbon emissions.

Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg billed it as a "greenwash festival," noting that current projections put the planet on track to exceed the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Here in Maine, some students in York County aren't waiting for world leaders to act. Their own coastal field work has led to the creation of a national nonprofit. Its goal is to get 10 million youth involved on climate in the next four years.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

Stage Harbor in Cape Porpoise was once a thriving habitat for native mussels, soft-shell clams and crabs. On the surface you might not know that has changed. But dig down beneath the piles of green seaweed and rocks, and you'll find aggressive predators that, over several decades, have decimated native species and the eelgrass that was their home.

"The invasive species, green crab and shore crab, are a big danger to our ecosystem and our economy," says Connor Keefe, one of Melissa Luetje's students from the Gulf of Maine Field Studies class at Kennebunk High School.

The students are measuring the effect of the warming Gulf of Maine on populations of native species as well as invasive European green crabs and Asian shore crabs. The students carefully identify each crab, measure them, determine if they are soft- or hard-shell, and whether they have eggs.

The students learn that European green crabs readily adapt to the warming Gulf waters, reproduce more often than native crabs and have no predators, so their populations have exploded.

Luetje, who has been teaching the Gulf of Maine Field Studies class for four years, says students have yet to find a native species in their scientific sampling. She says it's a hard, but valuable lesson.

"Look at where they live," she says. "They are seeing the effects of climate change right here, right now."

Carol Bousquet
Students in the Gulf of Maine Field Studies class at Kennebunk High School dig for crabs in Cape Porpoise in September.

The data collected by the class will go to scientists at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, UMaine and the New England Aquarium who are working on how to protect native species and habitats from the invaders. But Leia Lowery believes these kids can, and should, have a larger, more public stage.

"They're studying all the problems but don't have the forum to educate others," she says.

Lowery is program and outreach director for The Climate Initiative, a nonprofit based in Kennebunkport with a big mission: educate, empower and activate 10 million young people to take climate action by 2025. To that end, TCI has arranged for some of the students in the Gulf of Maine Field Studies class to take part in a public forum on climate change with Kennebunk town leaders and residents.

"This gives them the confidence and opportunity to do that, so that they will become this in their community, wherever they put their feet," Lowery says.

The students lead small group discussions about sea level rise, showing participants on maps how some of their favorite coastal spots will be underwater in a matter of decades, endangering the town's identity, tourism, beach and fishing communities.

Carol Bousquet
A crab dug up by students in the Gulf of Maine Field Studies class at Kennebunk High School in Cape Porpoise in September.

"It's shocking," says Lisa Pratt, a town selectperson. "It always seems like it will be in the future, but it will affect us and future generations quicker than we think it will."

This past summer, the town repaired the seawall yet again because extreme storms and sea level rise continue to batter and destroy it, threatening the beach and homes just beyond.

"We've seen the effects of it and made a lot of repairs," says Chris Ossterreider, Kennebunk's town engineer. "But that doesn't stop climate change. We aren't embracing it and that thinking has to change. It's our challenge to extend that thought process to the decision makers of tomorrow."

Those decision makers will include Ella Boxall and the other students at this meeting.

"The meeting gave me hope that everyone around me wants to prevent further global warming and climate change," Boxall says.

The students say they don't trust the federal government to tackle climate change and that they are learning more about it so they can make a difference.

While they are excited about their role in crafting solutions, they are admittedly anxious about their futures. And they realize it's a global problem that affects so many people beyond the state of Maine — people without resources who are trapped by the effects of climate change.

Ainsley Morrison, who plans to study environmental science in college, says she understands what's at stake.

"Because we're inheriting this right, there's no way out," she says. "So we want to change our future and that's such a huge motivator and the solution ultimately."

The Climate Initiative says in just over a year, it has engaged 3.2 million students in 27 states with social media messaging and digital engagement to move them toward climate action in their own communities.

To learn more about The Climate Initiative, its resources for educators and the network of states it's working with on climate change, visit theclimateinitiative.org.