With more waterfront and wealth, southern Maine towns lead the way in planning for climate change
Cameron Wake has gone to the ends of the earth — Greenland, the Arctic, the Antarctic, the Himalayas — to drill ice cores that show how the world’s climate has changed over the ages.
These days, though, the University of New Hampshire climate scientist is just as likely to be at home, studying the changes outside his front door.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
After many years living in the coastal Maine town of Kittery, Wake now leads its climate adaptation committee. In that role, he’s helping to coordinate a number of local efforts, including identifying which areas are most vulnerable to flooding; inventorying greenhouse gas emissions by residents and businesses; and expanding infrastructure for public transit, cycling and electric vehicles.
And now, Kittery is one of the rare Maine communities that’s going even further: it’s developing a formal plan to guide all present and future climate efforts.
To do so, the Town Council has agreed to spend $65,000 on the services of a consultant who will help collect public input and draft a list of concrete improvements that can be made in the coming years and decades. Wake has been impressed by the initiative, which is partly meant to ensure that members of the 10,000-person community are on board with any big changes going forward, such as elevating a road or rezoning an area.
“It’s significant that it’s not just that we want to do it, but that the town council has decided to put money aside to actually pay for a consultant to do it,” Wake said. “We probably could have done something in house, but we wouldn’t have been able to engage the community to the extent that we want to.”
Under the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, Maine produced a statewide climate action plan at the end of 2020, with a number of broad goals for reducing harmful gas emissions and preparing for hotter days ahead.
But Maine is a large state. And while many communities are responding to climate change in their own ways — from installing solar panels and new culverts to opening cooling centers and forming special committees — few have made far-ranging plans that account for their own unique populations, resources and vulnerabilities.
Those that have appear to be concentrated on the southern section of the Maine coast, where the threat of rising seas is great — and where some of the state’s wealthiest taxpayers also happen to live. In Cumberland County, they include Portland, South Portland, Falmouth and Cumberland. In York County, they include Kittery and York.
For Kittery, some of the biggest flood threats are to low-lying roads and bridges, including those that carry thousands of cars a day to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard — an institution that has its own big role in national security. Also at risk are homes, businesses, a fire station, a church and working waterfront, according to a report from a researcher at UNH.
Once the plan is ready in the next year or so, it won't "live on a shelf," but will instead have actionable objectives, according to Town Manager Kendra Amaral.
Wake — whose work has shifted more to the regional effects of climate change and sustainability in recent years, and who helped write New Hampshire’s climate action plan — thinks that every community needs to put together a local action plan in close consultation with its residents.
“The state can’t get into the granular information for citizens in a particular community. The state can’t go and engage citizens,” he said.
Besides providing a roadmap for climate initiatives, such documents can bring other long-range benefits, including helping communities secure grant funding and better financing for infrastructure projects.
Just up the coast from Kittery, the town of York has authorized $150,000 for the creation of its own climate action plan, which will come together at the same time the town updates its comprehensive plan, according to Gerry Runte, who co-chairs a steering committee for the climate plan.
“The plan isn’t going to say, ‘Go do XYZ,’ but it will say, ‘These are areas that are vulnerable and at risk, and here are some things that you could be doing,’” Runte said.
As in Kittery, Runte says that the town of York is focused on both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting itself against rising sea levels and other threats. And while both towns are acting on their own, Runte and Wake said they’ve also received crucial help from the Southern Maine Planning and Development Commission, which is coordinating the regional response to climate change.
Maine’s climate action plan also identifies a need for local and regional efforts to plan for climate change. It says the state should provide “robust” support, both with funding and guidance, while trying to overcome disparities affecting the elderly, people of color, tribes, rural communities and other groups.
It’s those groups that could be most affected in the wake of a disaster, according to Wake. “If and when the next big storm hits,” he said, “my fear is the wealthier and bigger communities are the ones that will get resources.”
One of the biggest questions going forward is how much funding and assistance will come from regional, state, federal and private sources, since most Maine towns don’t have the same tax base as Kittery or York, and not all of them may have the political will, staffing or know-how, either.
For now, the two-year state budget passed earlier this year includes $4.75 million in grant funding to help communities and regions prepare for climate change, reduce carbon emissions and transition to renewable energy. Over the summer, the Mills administration also helped steer $125,000 in private donations to three sets of inland communities around the state for regional climate planning pilot projects. And it's possible more climate funding will flow to Maine under new federal infrastructure legislation.
The state climate plan does provide some measure of the challenge. It has identified more than 50 communities across Maine that are both more vulnerable to climate impacts — owing to factors such as socioeconomic or minority status — and that also don’t have any planning staff.
And in a recent survey by the Maine Municipal Association of more than 60 communities, about half of respondents said that funding, staffing, technical capacity and community consensus were barriers to more ambitious climate action.
At least two survey respondents presented another challenge: they denied that climate change was even a problem.