Why the UN Climate Conference Matters for Maine

This piece will be published in my local paper, the Lincoln County News. Here’s the digital version! 

I used to write in the pages of this paper as a high school student at Lincoln Academy and Founder of the Climate Action Club, working to raise awareness about climate change. Now—five years and one Harvard degree later—I am writing from Paris, France as a youth delegate to the international climate negations hosted by the United Nations. Although UN negotiations half-way across the world may seem  distant, and irrelevant, my experiences here suggests that Maine can play an important role in leading the world toward effective climate action.

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The 21st UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP21) began on November 30th and continues until December 12th. COP21 represents one of the last opportunities to develop a legally binding agreement for global emissions reduction. Leading scientists say that we must keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius to maintain a world that is safe and habitable for humans. The current outlook for COP21 will put our planet on a trajectory for 2.7C warming or more. Needless to say, the political will for the climate policy needed to address this crisis is not in the negotiating rooms.

The United States’ position is crucial at COP21. We are the second largest polluter in the world. Therefore, the US bears a great deal of responsibility for a crisis that threatens vulnerable communities both in the US and around the world. While President Obama issued a strong opening statement at COP21, our Congress is not as committed. The House Majority Leader said on Monday that the House would not support any efforts to use taxpayer money for climate action. Our politics at home are undermining the world’s ability to address this crisis in the way that we need.

The challenge is to develop a culture in the United States that understands climate change as a matter of political necessity. We need a Congress (and future President) that appreciates how the climate crisis threatens everything that we love. This shift begins at the local level. We can influence the halls of Washington DC—and ultimately the United Nations—when we have an electorate that votes for climate champions at the local, state, and national levels.

Maine has a key role to play in shifting the national political consciousness on climate change. The current processes of climate destabilization uniquely impact our state. The ocean off our shores is warming 99% faster than the rest of the world’s sea. This impacts our fishing industry which, as we all know, is the backbone of Maine. In Lincoln County, ocean acidification as a result of climate change is effecting the ability of life to thrive in the Damariscotta River estuary. Fossil fuel infrastructure weaves across our state, putting countless communities at risk as they face the possibility of toxic sludge running through their backyards. Our Governor promotes policies that brings natural gas through Maine, furthering endangering waterways, homes, land, farms…

Scott Beede

Because Maine is so vulnerable to climate change, we also have an historic opportunity to stand up and protect our home. Our local actions can change the politics of our state and demonstrate how citizens can use their democratic power  to create a political system that serves their needs…even in the face of corporate interests. This kind of mobilization can inspire other communities across the country and ultimately change the way that America operates. One day, we will be able to come to the UN climate change conference with a President and a Congress that support strong climate action.

South Portland is an example of how we can mobilize around climate action for the sake of our home. There was a proposal to transport tar sands through a pipeline from South Portland to Canada. Tar sands is a viscous poisonous form of fossil fuels. Not only were local residents endangered by spills and leaks—Casco Bay and thus our economy was at stake too. South Portland mobilized, despite enormous opposition by the fossil fuel industry, to pass the Clear Skies Ordinance, which banned the fossil fuels from being loaded onto ships in Casco Bay. Mainers saved their community, creating a culture and awareness about the danger of fossil fuels at home and around the world.

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My efforts here in Paris are mostly symbolic. Nothing that I do will really impact the negotiations. But I can see that the one thing that can change the course of COP21 is a more powerful constituency in local communities across the United States demonstrating their commitment to a different energy future. Maine is and can be a leader in confronting the climate crisis. The opportunity is ours to grasp.

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