Ticking the box or designing for meaningful change?

Suzanne MacDonald|Emma Wendt|Sam Belknap
Posted 2020-05-22
As statewide climate recommendations begin to take shape, how do we put Maine communities and equity at the center?
 

Equity. It’s a concept that many value but can struggle to put into practice. When it comes to the state of Maine’s efforts to develop strategies to aggressively respond to climate change, what does it look like to design with a commitment to equity and to meeting the needs of all Mainers at the center?

While much of the world came to a screeching halt this spring, members of the Maine Climate Council’s working groups doubled down on their efforts to develop recommendations on how to reach the state’s climate goals. According to the Governor’s Office of Policy, Innovation, and the Future, the entity supporting the effort, more than 200 people across seven working groups participated in 30 meetings in April alone—an average of one per day—to refine strategies, review data, and make progress towards the early June deadline for submitting their recommendations to the Maine Climate Council.

Island Institute staff are pleased to serve on four of the Council’s subgroups (Science and Technical Subcommittee; Buildings, Housing and Infrastructure working group; Marine and Coastal working group; and the Community Resilience, Emergency Management, and Public Health working group), giving us unique insights into the cross-cutting nature of the Council’s work and the ways in which we can try to reflect the realities of Maine communities, large and small.

The legislation behind the Climate Council, LD 1679, calls for explicit consideration of rural communities; persons of low income and moderate income; economic sectors that face the biggest barriers to emissions reductions; vulnerable communities; and natural resource-based industries. The Climate Council’s plan must treat all Maine people “fairly and equitably” and must ensure “equity for all sectors and regions of the State.”

But as the working groups began to compare proposals, the question arose: “How do we know when we are making meaningful progress on equity and doing more than just ticking the box?”

At the Island Institute, we’ve seen first-hand how some of our state’s island and coastal communities can be —usually unintentionally—left behind by policy and program design that was built with a one-size-fits all approach. Research shows that these communities are unique due to their population size, demographics (primarily age), geography, and employment. Our collaborations with Maine communities have repeatedly shown that these realities can lead to obstacles when trying to access clean energy financing and other efforts to build resiliency in the face of climate change. Specifically, our 2018 Bridging the Rural Efficiency Gap white paper with the Maine Governor’s Energy Office highlighted the geographic, financial, and awareness gaps faced by residents of rural communities when trying to access energy efficiency programs.

This experience has increasingly led us to ask questions about other segments of Maine’s population – along the coast or in the interior – that may have a harder time helping to shape or equitably benefit from carbon reduction measures. How could we raise the concepts for the Council to consider, while grounding them in real stories of Mainers from across the state? 

On April 28, 2020, we partnered with Ania Wright to co-present to the Council’s Buildings, Infrastructure, and Housing Working Group to combine research and data with accounts of Maine communities and industries to illustrate how these concepts play out in Maine. Ania is the youth representative to the Climate Council, representing Maine Youth for Climate Justice and Island Institute partner, College of the Atlantic. In February 2020, we were honored to have her share her perspectives on the climate movement during this year’s Waypoints Forum, “Courageous Leadership in Disruptive Times.”

Youth involved with Maine Youth for Climate Justice share similar first-hand experiences to how certain groups are often left behind in policy decisions. Young people are at the frontlines of the climate crisis as they will be the ones to inherit our earth, and yet the urgency they bring to the table is not always heard. Additionally, they see the climate crisis for what it is, a failure of our societal systems, and not just an ecological crisis. Dealing with the climate crisis will take rethinking the way we solve problems. Part of that rethinking is around diversity, equity, and inclusion.

In our presentation to the Buildings, Infrastructure, and Housing Working Group, we highlighted:

  • Vulnerable communities have already been, and will continue to be the most impacted by climate change.
  • Rural residents—who make up 61% of Maine, the highest rate in the nation—experience additional challenges of high energy costs and barriers to addressing them. Reliance on expensive heating fuel; an older housing stock; lower incomes; and higher numbers of mobile homes all contribute to a higher “energy burden,” or the percentage of household income spent on electricity and heating. Remote geography, lack of access to financing, and other barriers, can make it harder to access and pay for energy efficiency.
  • Natural resources-based industries such as fisheries and forestry are particularly vulnerable to climate change, due both to the impacts they are experiencing and their significant reliance on and challenges associated with moving away from fossil fuels. Equitable support for these culturally iconic and economically essential industries is key to successfully addressing climate change.
  • Addressing these inequities is possible and can effectively support vulnerable communities and everyone—e.g., by partnering with trusted messengers to go beyond traditional marketing channels; adding funding and flexible financing options; or addressing limitations in local capacity to plan and implement projects.

These lessons shared specifically with the Buildings, Infrastructure, and Housing group are relevant to all the Maine Climate Council’s working groups striving to help Maine communities reduce our carbon pollution and adapt to the future impacts of a rapidly changing climate. By doing so with an eye toward equity, as required by the legislation that formed the Maine Climate Council, we can ensure that any actions taken by the state will benefit all Mainers, especially those on the front lines of climate change impacts.

We are encouraged by the Climate Council’s progress in these trying times. While we are all now focused on and experiencing the health and economic crises from COVID-19, we know that Maine people, and in particular our most vulnerable residents, will continue to be hit by increasingly strong storms, rising seas, uncertain growing seasons, and other impacts resulting from climate change. Our commitment now to basing recommendations on their realities will help to increase the likelihood that all Mainers will benefit from this work in the months and years ahead.
 

This piece was written in collaboration with Ania Wright of Maine Youth for Climate Justice and College of the Atlantic.