Students and others respond to a climate action speech in front of Portland City Hall Dec. 6. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)
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While world leaders were meeting in Madrid to discuss cutting carbon emissions, students gathered for another climate strike on the steps of Portland City Hall, where they called on Gov. Janet Mills to declare a climate emergency.  

Portland and South Portland have already done so in response to the student climate protests, and are working together to develop a plan to reduce their carbon emissions and adapt to coming climate change challenges. 

“Youth leadership on climate has been really, really important,” Portland Sustainability Coordinator Troy Moon said, noting that their call to end fossil fuel use by 2030 “is a steep bar, but they say the future would be better than it would be if we continue as we are currently.”  

Troy Moon, Portland’s sustainability coordinator, speaks about the joint climate action and adaptation plan the city is developing with South Portland in a Dec. 4 presentation at Portland Public Library. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Moon spoke about the cities’ joint climate action and adaptation plan they call “One Climate Future: Charting a Course for Portland and South Portland” at a sustainability series talk Dec. 4 hosted by Portland Public Library.

Both cities have set the same climate goals, he said: 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, and are trying to speed up their effort to meet the students’ demands. 

But regardless of what the two cities can accomplish, change is inevitable. Moon said the sustainability offices in Portland and South Portland are looking at three model scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to prepare for the coming effects of warming on the two cities.

The low scenario, known as RCP 2.6, assumes global emissions of greenhouse gasses are drastically reduced, with net-negative emissions by 2100, and temperature rise is kept below 1.9 degrees Celsius.

An intermediate scenario, RCP 4.5, assumes temperatures increase between 2.6 and 3 degrees Celsius, which would be possible, Moon said, if emissions end by 2050 and there are technologies in use to start pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

A worst-case scenario, RCP 8.5, assumes emissions continue increasing as usual and temperatures rise by 3.2 degrees to 5 degrees Celsius. Earth in this scenario, Moon said, would not be a planet we recognize. 

He laid out what can be expected if the IPCC models are correct.

In Portland and South Portland, sea level would rise 4 feet by 2100 at the low scenario, 4 feet by 2050 at the intermediate scenario, or nearly 11 feet by 2100 with business as usual, he said. 

Under any scenario, Moon said, Portland will have to prepare for frequent flooding of Bayside and Commercial Street in the short term, which is already occurring during extreme rainfall events like the one experienced Saturday, Dec. 14, and astronomical high tides.

The region’s temperatures are rising rapidly and Maine will see more frequent days of greater than 90-degree heat, Moon said, leading to more heat-related deaths and illnesses. Increased heat will also increase the tick and mosquito populations, which will be carrying a variety of diseases including Lyme, eastern equine encephalitis, and Zika and West Nile viruses. 

Students at the protest spoke of the feedback loop of warming atmosphere that increases humidity: water vapor is another greenhouse gas. 

As the climate warms, there will be impacts on air quality, too. Increased ambient air pollution, pollen and mold will contribute to asthma and allergies. Increased ground level ozone will make outside recreation problematic. 

And there will be more and more refugees coming to Portland. A 2018 World Bank report projects that 143 million people will be climate refugees by 2050, attempting to escape the heat and sea level rise in their regions.

“Some places are heating up so fast, particularly the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” Moon said, pointing to a bright red spot in central Africa on a temperature map. “Sixty million people live in the Congo.”

While the response to the influx of refugees and asylum seekers last summer was impressive, he said, there is need to prepare for more. 

“That was 350 people,” Moon said. “What if we had 3,500 or 35,000? As we move forward, we can anticipate more people coming here. As we plan for our climate future we need to make sure we think about that. We are already talking about affordable housing, it could be a worse problem.” 

Portland and South Portland’s developing strategy to respond to these changes is outlined on the website oneclimatefuture.org.

Portland is already making some progress: just by upgrading streetlights to LED, the city has already reduced its energy use by 8 percent, Moon said. Portland will also ban plastic straws starting next August, and Portland and South Portland have passed the most restrictive pesticide ordinances in the nation. 

Unlike the rest of the state, where transportation is the greatest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, in Portland 60 percent comes from the building sector. To address this, Portland will start tracking the energy usage of commercial buildings in April 2020.  

The joint climate strategy is still under development. The current phase of identifying solutions for action is concluding this month; from January-March 2020, the suggested solutions will be prioritized; from April-May 2020 the final plan will be reviewed, and it is due to the City Council in June. 

Moon said the office is looking for feedback through a survey that will soon be mailed to residents.