How a solution to climate change could put money in Mainers’ pockets

Imagine the leaders at the Paris climate change conference ready to dig into a Maine lobster dinner, at tables arrayed with melted butter, crackers for the claws, and bowls for the discards.

That repast wouldn’t just be delicious and a public relations coup for our state’s fisheries, but also a concrete sign of what’s at stake.

Here’s the reality: The Gulf of Maine has been warming and the ocean is becoming more acid and that’s bad news.

Parts of the gulf’s ecosystem are showing stress. Those tasty little Maine shrimp aren’t around very much and haven’t been harvested for two years. Meanwhile,as water current patterns have changed, invasive green crabs have become more widespread.

Right now lobster is doing fine in Maine. Landings have increased. Ocean waters warming in Long Island Sound and around Cape Cod have led to the crustaceans moving north. Shell disease is also more common further south.

But, as BDN reporter Bill Trotter points out, “Everyone connected to the fishery acknowledges that catches will not go up forever, and there is concern that too much of Maine’s coastal economy is dependent on that one species. If something like a disease outbreak were to occur, the impact on the state’s economy could be severe.”

And a report from the Maine Legislature warned, “The increasing rate of acidification will most heavily impact those marine organisms that produce calcium carbonate hard parts, such as clams, lobster, mussels, shrimp, scallops, sea urchins and cold water coral.”

Beyond Maine’s fisheries and working waterfronts, Maine’s farms and forests are threatened by climate change.

Halfway across the world, Chinese scientists have called upon their politicians to act. A 900-page study notes that China’s glaciers have retreated. Coastal infrastructure is threatened by rising seas. A 700-mile rail line is no longer stable because the land beneath is warming and causing the tracks to warp. Future water limits could lead to migrations and border disputes, creating political and natural security problems.

Our own military reports that climate change has “the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today — from infectious disease to terrorism.”

In the face of this danger to future generations, powerful forces have sowed doubt and promoted conspiracy theories.

Researchers note that understandings of science are amplified by networks of like-minded people. So although scientists reject climate change denial, an echo chamber among deniers led Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, to argue that the presence of snow in the winter disproves the reality that the planet is warming and to think that throwing a snowball onto the Senate floor is a credible argument against climate change.

Big money has created and spread denial. As a recent article by Yale professor Justin Farrell showed, funding from ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers was used to disseminate views opposing the scientific consensus.

Some of those efforts may even be criminal. In early November, New York’s Attorney General issued subpoenas to ExxonMobil to determine if the company misrepresented its research about climate change’s impact on the oil industry to the public and investors.

On the bright side, there’s a policy solution that could gain bipartisan support.

We can put money in citizens’ pockets and cut carbon with a plan called Carbon Fee and Dividend that puts a fee on carbon pollution and then distributes the money to citizens.

As University of Massachusetts economist James Boyce explained about a particular version of this plan, this could work like the very popular oil dividend Alaska sends to its residents. Permits for emitting carbon would be auctioned and “100 percent of the proceeds would be returned straight to the American people as equal dividends for every woman, man and child.”

Maine is already involved in auctioning carbon permits through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, but this idea is more ambitious and would put money into Mainers’ pockets. A 2009 study co-authored by Boyce estimated that in the first year Maine families would come out ahead by $509.

Maine people can get a check in the mail from a program that reduces carbon emissions, thus helping us preserve our important fisheries and coastal and rural communities. Smart politicians could come together to get this done.

If that happens, it will be a great reason for big celebratory Maine lobster dinner. 

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.