On the evening of Dec. 2, the Brunswick Town Council joined Bar Harbor, South Portland, and Portland in declaring a state of climate emergency. Compared to the climate rally that followed on Dec. 6, this was a quiet affair — but a resounding one nonetheless. With unanimous approval, council members passed a resolution drafted by members of Bowdoin Climate Action, naming the urgency of the climate crisis and committing Brunswick to developing an action plan to potentially eliminate carbon emissions by 2030.
At first, such municipal action might seem nominal or unnecessary. Why bother to come out with a statement or engage with a massive, global issue on the scale of local government?
As it turns out, Maine’s towns are hardly the first to make the move. As early as December of 2016, the city of Darebin, Australia, a Melbourne suburb, declared a state of climate emergency. Since then, more than 1,200 local governments in 25 countries have followed suit, translating to nearly 800 million people globally represented by governments that have declared a climate emergency. Eight hundred million — that’s a lot, and it’s a number that will only continue to grow.
Let’s face it: in a time of crisis, where 2019 marks the end of the warmest decade on record and the number of billion-dollar climate disasters each year continues to rise, our federal government has effectively chosen to ignore this. We have no choice but to build power from the bottom up, tackling the climate crisis from our hometowns and city halls. A municipal climate emergency declaration isn’t an empty statement — it’s a bright red flag on the map. Enough of these, and state governments would be hard put to ignore the demands of their constituents.
It’s also not a point of fear or hopelessness, but rather a springboard for action. To stop the house from burning down, as Dr. Margaret Klein Salamon, author of the paper “Leading the Public Into Emergency Mode: Introducing the Climate Emergency Movement,” points out, we must first recognize the fire.
Around the world, more and more voices are urging us to see the fire for what it is. Last month, a report published in BioScience, titled “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” and signed by 11,092 scientists from 153 countries, marked the first time a large group of scientists has labeled climate change as an emergency. Even the Oxford Dictionary has named “climate emergency” as its 2019 Word of the Year, noting its hundredfold increase in usage since 2018.
And I hardly need to mention 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, who emerged as a powerful activist this year — not as a scientist, politician, or even an adult, but as someone who refused to stay silent.
And when the house is burning down, we cannot stand by and do nothing. Maine cannot stand by and do nothing. What about the Gulf of Maine, warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans, and its fisheries? Or our coastal populations, at risk of flooding and rising sea level? What about projected increases in drought, flooding, heat waves, intense snowstorms and decreased air quality throughout the Northeast?
The good news is, Maine has the potential to be a leader for our country. Already, momentum is building. This summer, Maine passed legislation to effect a green energy transition and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, establishing an updated Maine Climate Council in the process.
Furthermore, youth activists are behind all four of the climate emergency declarations in Maine, and will only continue to turn up the pressure, demanding that state legislators take a stand against the climate crisis.
The house is on fire, but we don’t have to watch it burn. It’s time for Maine to step up, become the first state to declare climate emergency, and lead the fight for a livable future for the generations to come.
Ayana Harscoet is a junior at Bowdoin College, majoring in biology and environmental studies. She is a co-leader of Bowdoin Climate Action.