Portland nears a plan to face changing climate, rising sea level

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Hardly anyone could find fault with an unseasonably warm November day, as temperatures rose past 60 degrees after Election Day.

Anyone, that is, but Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability coordinator, whose job it is to try to limit the impact of changing climate.

In recent years, he said, Portland has taken important steps toward sustainability and policy changes – a ban on foam containers and plastic straws, a fee on plastic bags at various stores, and an ordinance that outlaws the use of synthetic pesticides. He also said the city has worked closely with partners in state government to create policies that would benefit all of Maine, such as a solar energy bill passed last session by the Legislature.

Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability coordinator. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Most recently, the city has partnered with South Portland to create a guiding document called One Climate Future, a joint plan for the two cities to use collaboratively.

The plan, which the Portland City Council approved Monday, aims to sharply reduce both cities’ carbon footprints over the next 30 years, and transition to total renewable energy dependence.

Moon said this kind of collaboration is unique; he is unaware of other cities working together in this way. The plan was the result of 18 months of work and talking to thousands of people, he said.

It calls for the cities to transition to 100 percent renewable energy for municipal operations by 2040 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Once adopted, Moon said, the first steps will be making sure people in both communities know the plan is in place. He said it calls for better energy efficiency in businesses and new buildings, so getting the word out to those business owners will be key.

Concerns near and far

Although climate change is often debated in the political arena, the effects of the earth’s warming are widely accepted by the scientific community. But the delays caused by political bickering about global warming has many experts fearing the impacts of climate change are on the verge of becoming irreversible.

For example, according to NASA, the northeast portion of the United States, often characterized by harsh winters, has seen increased summer heat waves and record-breaking temperatures. Heavy downpours and rising sea levels are also seen in the northeast.

Around the country and the world, the impacts of climate change are seen in increased temperatures, prolonged droughts, extreme heat that threatens agriculture, and prominent natural features being put at risk.

It’s not just the rising temperatures that should have Mainers concerned, according to experts. Kathy Mills, a scientist with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, last week said there are major concerns for local wildlife and the economy that depends on it.

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute on Commercial Street in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

“What we’re looking at is trying to understand how species shift on the east coast,” said Mills, who specializes in ecosystem changes and how New England fisheries are impacted by climate change.

For Portland, she said, there’s “not great news” ahead in terms of the impacts climate change will have.

“Portland is dependent on lobstering and groundfish fisheries,” Mills said, “and for those species as weather warms, we expect to see declines.”

Groundfish, which includes species like cod and haddock, are expected to decline as a local economic staple, she said. Mills said this doesn’t mean the fish are necessarily in danger of dying out, but rather are being forced into deeper, colder waters, where local fishermen are likely not going to follow.

Likewise, she said GMRI expects the lobster industry to see up to a 30 percent decline in the coming years as waters continue to warm. Herring, another staple of the fishing economy, is also expected to enter a decline.

“These are not necessarily declines in the stock overall, but in the fishing footprint,” Mills said.

But while the traditional fishing staples may disappear, Mills said the warming waters may result in fish not typically seen in Maine coming up the coast from the south. For example, she said they expect to see more Atlantic mackerel, sea scallops, summer flounder, black sea bass, and squid now found in the mid-Atlantic region.

“So there is an opportunity for other commercially valuable species,” Mills said.

She said fishermen here are already seeing black sea bass and squid, and they are expected to become more abundant in the coming years.

“Another species I was surprised to see is the striped bass,” Mills said. “This is a really popular recreational species, so will that become more prominent for the needs on the waterfront?”

Part of GMRI’s role, she said, is to provide information about what species will be relevant to fisheries in the area, and what the needs of local waterfronts might be. For example, she said, perhaps Portland should brace for fewer lobster traps and counter that with more midwater trawl nets.

Rising sea level could have a catastrophic impact along Portland Harbor. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

An often-overlooked aspect in the climate change discussion, Mills said, is the economic impact fisheries have on the regions they inhabit. She said Portland has a diversified economy, but as you move further Downeast, fishing is still a huge economic driver.

“It’s not something most people are talking about, but because of the particular setting, it’s important to raise that in the conversation,” Mills said. “It does interact with the other things people are thinking about. As you think about changing dock infrastructure for sea-level change, it’s important the needs you expect are the needs of the future, not just for today.”

As temperatures rise, so does collaboration

Moon said the importance of the One Climate Future plan is that both Portland and South Portland are coastal communities and as such, sea level is the first concern related to climate change that comes to mind – especially with a plan that looks forward 30 years to 2050.

In that timeframe, he said, Portland could expect to see two feet of sea-level rise.

“So the plan begins to prepare for that and what kind of land-use policies should we adopt so we’re not placing people in vulnerable positions,” he said.

Moon said the rising temperatures are another concern. In the last hundred years, he said, Maine has seen an average temperature increase of 3 degrees, and by 2050 will add another 3 degrees.

“(With) Maine not being a really warm state traditionally, most of our buildings are not suited for it, so we need to think of how to adapt to that and create cooling centers,” he said.

Moon said climate change is also a “threat multiplier,” meaning it presents greater risks to people who are already vulnerable or at risk from other social problems, such as housing or financial insecurity.

“It’s really important to keep those in the center of attention as we think of how to deal with climate challenges,” he said.

Gayle Bowness works to help raise public awareness about the effects of climate change as manager of Sea Level Rise programming at GMRI. She helps interpret data and make it “locally relevant” for decision-makers in local communities.

“There will be a lot of tough choices down the road because there will be impacts from the intensity of storm events and sea-level rise,” Bowness said.

Bowness said the One Climate Future plan is important for Portland and South Portland since the two cities share a harbor, and people who live in one city often work in the other. She said when looking at the huge problems associated with climate change, it’s important to have communities work collaboratively like this.

She said Maine in general has a shortage of resources when it comes to sustainability, but while Portland and South Portland each have sustainability offices working on these issues, both have limited resources.

Climate change, on a local level, Bowness said, is a serious issue that demands collaboration.

“It’s a really wicked problem,” she said. “It’s a super gnarly problem. The more collaboration we have on this front end to better understand what the problem is, the more voices and perspectives and knowledge can inform what the solution can be.”