Bath Iron Works. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik

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Last month, a milestone was reached. No, not the 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, though it is related to that sobering statistic. Rather, it’s that heritage shipyard Bath Iron Works has taken its first step in a conversion to building valuable tools for humanity instead of weapons of war.

Specifically, in response to a pandemic that has infected more than 6 million people, BIW is manufacturing machines needed to produce nasal swabs used for testing. These nasal swabs are a specialized diagnostic tool, and shortages due to limited manufacturing has led to headlines like, “ Many nursing homes still haven’t tested any residents or staff for the coronavirus.”

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

Even better, several of BIW’s subcontractors are also contributing to the effort to make these essential items for protecting the public’s health.

As part of a coalition that for years has called on BIW’s owner, General Dynamics, to convert the shipyard to producing solutions to the climate crisis rather than weapon systems that contribute to it, I am greatly encouraged by this news. What’s more, we now have a blueprint for how BIW can continue to provide great union jobs, while no longer creating war ships that are increasingly irrelevant and costly.

First, there must be a clear and pressing problem and sophisticated manufacturing tasks that address it. Certainly, COVID-19 fits the bill; the machines are for customer Puritan Medical Group in Guildford, one of only two facilities in the world that had been making the sophisticated swabs (the other is in Italy) necessary for accurate testing. So, too, does the climate crisis. Maine knows all too well how quickly our valuable fishing waters are warming and the increasing frequency of violent storms that knock out power and endanger lives. Only with increasingly smart renewable energy technology and considerable changes in behavior can we hope to avert increasing disaster.

Second, there must be political will to address the problem. In this case, Puritan chief financial officer reports that Sen. Angus King and other government officials called on Puritan to increase capacity to address the testing deficit. For the climate crisis, as many as 60 percent of registered voters are in support of a Green New Deal — BIW and our elected officials both must take heed of the people’s will.

Third, BIW needs monetary incentives. In this case, the speed and efficiency with which management used federal funding available under the CARES Act is astonishing and impressive. And yet the $75.5 million funded through the Defense Production Act is a pittance in comparison with the multiple billions needed to create Navy destroyers. Think of what that kind of cash infusion could do for the renewable energy industry.

Finally, there is the need for collaboration. While we have often heard how difficult conversion would be, given all of the subcontractors and partners involved, it appears BIW has managed to collaborate with more than 10 other Maine businesses in a matter of weeks. This is both incredibly impressive and exhilarating, as it suggests so much potential for addressing the climate crisis in collective fashion.

When Bath Iron Works remained open to continue building war ships during a global pandemic, it was clear our priorities were badly misplaced. Claiming that building yet another war ship is an “essential” business, when we already have more destroyers than all the other navies in the world combined, is the kind of poor thinking that has characterized the executive branch of the federal government during this crisis.

But maybe we have finally turned a corner. It’s now clear the conversion of BIW to peaceful production is entirely possible, as this rapid shift to address a critical medical shortage shows. And it need not come at the expense of good union jobs. On the contrary, economists’ research has demonstrated time and again that building weapon systems is a poor jobs program in terms of the number of jobs generated. Their estimates show converting BIW to produce clean energy systems instead of war ships would generate roughly 50 percent more jobs — with the same investment — than the 6,000 employed before the pandemic.

A demilitarized Green New Deal is the obvious course forward for a country full of workers desperate for good jobs. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Lisa Savage is an Independent Green candidate for U.S. Senate.