Where are the leaders on climate change?

At the summit
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  March 20, 2014

Maine's leaders “just don’t believe scientifically what’s happening to us” in terms of climate change, said Laurie Lachance — a radical statement for the president of Waterville’s conservative, business-oriented Thomas College.

Speaking at the Climate Solutions Expo and Summit at the Augusta Civic Center on March 12 — sponsored by a dozen organizations from 350 Maine to the Penobscot Nation — Lachance came across as one Maine leader who understands what needs to happen.

It’s only practical for the state’s business leaders, she said, to pay attention to “sustainability” if they “want to attract young folks” to their companies. (The S-word resounded throughout the gathering.)

She and four other Maine small-college presidents spoke on a panel that bucked the stereotype of higher-ed administrators focused more on raising money from the One Percent than on solving society’s problems.

Two presidents of tiny, ecologically minded institutions told how they were leading the country in divesting their (relatively small) endowments from fossil-fuel companies. Darron Collins, the College of the Atlantic chief, credited the divestment impetus to students at his Bar Harbor campus. His counterpart at Unity College, Stephen Mulkey, was proud that his college was the first in the country to divest — and that its $15-million fund has since done well in the stock market.

The campus CEOs also described how their institutions were trying to lead the state in climate-change activism. University of Maine at Farmington president Kathryn Foster proclaimed: “We can be a green leader in society.”

“Our job is to be educators-in-chief,” which includes educating policy-makers, said Richard Hopper, of Kennebec Valley Community College, in Fairfield. KVCC recently expanded to the former Good Will-Hinckley School, inheriting an organic farm that prompted the creation of a sustainable-agriculture curriculum.

The conference was held in March despite the risk of a snowstorm because its organizers wanted “to reach the Legislature while it’s in session,” co-coordinator Fred Horch said.

Legislators, however, weren’t reached; in fact, none of those alleged leaders was spotted. Two Democrats, Mark Eves, House speaker, and Justin Alfond, Senate president, were scheduled to speak at the conference’s final session, but the feared late-winter storm materialized and caused the afternoon to be cut short. Despite the storm, more than 750 people attended, organizers said.

Horch, a Green Independent state Senate candidate in Brunswick, regretted that “we’re not making any progress” with green legislation. The “feed-in tariff” bill, which would have made electric utilities pay people who produce electrical energy at their homes or business (such as by solar cells), was defeated in this session; Horch suggested it may be resurrected as a citizens’-initiated referendum measure.

One noteworthy politician did attend: Shenna Bellows, the Democratic candidate running against Republican United States Senator Susan Collins. Climate change is one of the three pillars of Bellows’s campaign, the others being economic inequality and civil liberties.

Although the expo was free, 90 participants paid $25 each to draw up plans for the state to progress toward green goals by 2020. The plans will be found at climatesolutionsme.org.

But unless the state’s non-leading leaders are reached or replaced, it’s hard to see how many goals will be achieved.

Even divestment at more Maine colleges may be tough to accomplish. At one of state’s rich liberal-arts institutions, Colby, in Waterville, students who pushed the college to dump fossil-fuel stock were rebuffed by trustees in 2013. Colby’s board is full of corporate leaders.

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