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This small island is taking on a big problem — climate change

In Maine, some believe the solutions will come, not from laws, but from neighbors

By Tracy Staedter

On Maine’s Mount Desert Island, home to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, the sea brings news of change. Over the last 15 years, the Gulf of Maine has warmed faster than 99 percent of the global ocean. Storms more frequently swamp the island’s low-lying roads. Lobsters, who prefer the cold, have started a slow march north toward Canadian waters, taking the state’s iconic industry with them. Ticks, who like it warm, have multiplied, as have reports of Lyme disease. Another insect, the red pine scale, burrows into conifers and kills them from the inside out. Rusted and skeletal, the trees die overlooking the island’s smooth-bouldered shores.

For people like Gary and Glenon Friedmann, who have lived on the island year-round since 1982, the signs have been impossible to overlook.

“Four years ago, my wife said, ‘We’ve got to do something about climate change. If we don’t, nothing else is going to matter.’” Friedmann, who lives in Bar Harbor and was a member of the town’s council at the time (he’s now the chair), started pushing for a solar installation on a municipal building to power some of the town’s facilities. He and Glenon rallied residents to show up for a crucial vote. The initiative passed. Revved up by the success, community members started meeting over potluck dinners to talk about expanding renewable energy and addressing other sustainability issues.

On a brightly cold day in January 2016, the air sharp with the smell of chimney smoke, the group launched A Climate to Thrive. The grassroots movement aims to achieve energy independence for Mount Desert Island by 2030. It wants to improve efficiencies in the island’s buildings, transportation, food systems, and waste.

Jared Palmer of ReVision Energy installs solar panels on a home on Mount Desert Island. Photo by Joe Blotnick

For an island of just 108 square miles, with four towns and a population of 11,000 that’s overrun by 3.5 million visitors in the summer, the progress has been amazing, says Friedmann, who is the board chair of A Climate to Thrive. In just three years, volunteers have raised nearly $450,000 through grants and donations. They’ve tripled the amount of solar power on the island; enacted bans on polystyrene and single-use plastic bags; developed a plan to reduce foam, plastic, and food waste at restaurants; and pushed for legislation to establish an energy-independence plan.

It’s a big accomplishment for a small community, says Cooper Martin, director of sustainability and solutions at the National League of Cities. “We see fewer small cities that have all of these ambitious targets,” he says. “They’ll set a carbon emissions goal or a green building goal, but they don’t go for everything.”

What Mount Desert Island has achieved so far is partly a product of who they are: Mainers. Born of land known for its dark, cruel winters and blustery Nor’easter storms, they’re tough, resourceful, and self-sufficient. (It’s these characteristics that earned them their independence from Massachusetts in 1820, a political battle that took 35 years to win.) They’re also fiercely protective of their coastal home, which roils in glorious beauty come spring. Even as Americans grow to accept climate change as a threat, progress seems maddeningly slow for those experiencing its effects directly. Mount Desert Islanders are convinced that solutions will come, not from leaders making policy from above, but from small communities cohesive enough to approach big problems with a collective spirit.

Mount Desert Island residents gather to hear information about solar energy in 2017. Photo by Joe Blotnick

“In small communities, there is less partisanship than you might see in state or federal levels,” says Dennis Kiley, a psychotherapist who lives in Bar Harbor and is vice chair of A Climate to Thrive. “I might not vote the same way as you, but I’m willing to collaborate with you and act on commonsense initiatives.” 

In the case of Mount Desert Island, it took individual obsessions, unique skills, and a driving motivation from people idealistic enough — and frustrated enough — to get something done. As the group expands its reach beyond the island to the rest of Maine, its members believe they have lessons to share and stories about how to come together to affect change.

Getting energized

After that first success with the municipal solar installation, members of A Climate to Thrive got energized. They knew that about 40 percent of their electricity came from fossil fuels, and so they set an aggressive goal: 100 percent renewable by 2030. Using data from the US Geological Service, a College of the Atlantic student, Wade Lyman, found that if every south-facing rooftop with unobstructed access to the sun had photovoltaic panels, solar power could supply the island with 85 percent of its energy needs.

“That was a startling figure,” says Friedmann. It meant they didn’t have to build out thousands of acres of solar farms across the land. They put a plan in place to double the amount of installed solar power every year as well as reduce electricity use by beefing up home insulation and installing LEDs in streetlights and public buildings.

Mount Desert Islanders are convinced that solutions will come, not from leaders making policy from above, but from small, cohesive communities.

Organizers began promoting solar power. They partnered with energy contractor ReVision Energy to print up lawn signs that included the island’s initials: “Solarize MDI 2017.” They held question and answer sessions at town council meetings and at libraries to gauge residents’ interest level. They handed out charts showing how much solar panels would cost and when customers could expect to see paybacks. They created buzz.

By the end of 2019, the island will have nearly 2.5 megawatts of solar energy, says Joe Blotnick, co-coordinator of A Climate to Thrive. Glossy black solar panels already glint from the peaks of 76 homes, including the red metal roof of Susan Turner and Karl Karnaky’s house in Bar Harbor and Peggy Rockefeller’s modest barn. A solar array on Crooked Road in Bar Harbor boasts 60 kilowatts of capacity to provide electricity for two homes, an apartment building and Peekytoe Provisions. The privately owned Ocean House Boat Storage in Southwest Harbor will have 137 kilowatts capacity to service up to 14 homes and businesses. In Tremont, a 153-kilowatt array went up on a capped landfill, providing electricity for the town’s building and a school. By fall, Mount Desert High School will have 1,300 panels on its roof.

“We started the organization to show people that dealing with climate change was within their grasp,” said Friedmann. “Change is going to have to be initiated at the local level, and when local people take leadership, leaders will follow.”

Seeds that sprout

Martha Higgins is fanatical about recycling. She attributes it to her parents, who grew up during the Great Depression and never threw anything out. “My mother’s favorite saying was, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,’” says Higgins, who’s now 72. “I just internalized that.” When she realized her employer, Galyn’s Restaurant in Bar Harbor, wasn’t recycling and that the town’s recycling program didn’t accept most plastics, she began saving discarded jugs and hauling them herself to the transfer station in Trenton, just over the causeway on the mainland.

Organizers with A Climate to Thrive caught wind of her one-woman recycling effort and asked her to speak at the group’s annual summit in 2018. Higgins said she was terrified. But for two minutes, she told the crowd why she did it and encouraged others to do the same. “Everybody has a place in this world. Everybody can make a difference,” she told them.

Sand Beach sits in between the mountains and the Atlantic Sea on the East side of Mount Desert Island. Photo by Cal Sport Media via AP Images

Restaurateur Michael Boland was in the audience. He approached Higgins after her talk and asked her if she wanted to team up on a sustainable restaurant initiative. With the help of Jill Higgins (not related to Martha), a co-coordinator of A Climate to Thrive, they organized a meeting with food providers and created the Sustainable MDI Restaurant, Cafe, and Caterer Pledge. Food providers qualify as “MDI Sustainable” under the pledge if they implement at least three of six practices—not using plastic straws or stirrers, polystyrene foam containers,  plastic bags, or non-compostable garbage bags, as well as using reusable and washable dishes and composting food waste and compostable bioplastics. To date, more than 50 of the total 178 food-related businesses on the island have signed the pledge and qualify as “MDI Sustainable.” That earns them a sticker to place in the window and a logo for their menu.

But not everyone has come on board. While some of the practices can save a vendor money — like eliminating plastic straws — others are expensive, says Boland. For instance, plastic trash bin liners typically cost 10 cents apiece, whereas biodegradable ones cost 90 cents apiece.

“Honestly, not a lot of folks chose that pledge item,” says Boland.

Making waves

Around the time that A Climate to Thrive was beginning to gel as an organization, a group of eighth grade girls were becoming a force in their own right. Caroline Musson, Logan Wilbur, Ella Izenour, and Charlotte Partin had come together for a class project at Pemetic Elementary School. Their assignment? To create a presentation on why plastic waste was a problem for Mount Desert Island and how it could be solved. They proposed a ban on polystyrene food containers and single-use plastic bags. They got an A on their project, but they knew they weren’t finished. “We all really wanted to get some sort of change to happen,” says Izenour.

Their teacher, Bonnie Norwood, suggested they present their findings and proposed solution to Southwest Harbor’s board of selectmen meeting. Norwood also invited Bernard resident Carey Donovan, secretary of A Climate to Thrive’s zero waste committee, to meet the students, view their presentation, and give them feedback ahead of the meetings.

“They did such a great job. They really knew their stuff,” says Donovan.

The girls presented numerous times, not only at other town meetings, but also for the island’s three largest libraries. The four students met with businesses to explain their proposed ban on polystyrene and single-use plastic bags, field questions, and address concerns. When the students entered high school and their schedules began to fill with classes, homework, and extracurricular activities, they asked A Climate to Thrive to help them bring the ban down the home stretch. Noel Musson, Caroline’s father, wrote an ordinance. By January 2019, both Southwest Harbor and Bar Harbor had passed the ban. Mount Desert and Tremont will be voting on bans in May 2019.

Friedmann says the organization has aimed to involve as many young people as possible. The group provides teachers with scientific data about climate change, waste, and energy and helps connect them with experts. In 2017, A Climate to Thrive began sponsoring summer internships for both college and high school students. New grants will let them support young people who want to be part of discussions around climate and energy. On April 23, members of A Climate to Thrive brought about 50 high school students from the island to the state capitol in Augusta to join 400 youths from around the state, who will testify at committee hearings and meet with state legislators and leaders, including Governor Janet Mills, to learn how the system of government works.

Getting the word out

A Climate to Thrive is now trying to spread its ideas beyond Mount Desert Island. Two volunteers have created a starter kit with advice on how others could organize environmental groups in their own communities. At A Climate to Thrive’s annual summit in February 2019 the volunteers held a workshop for about 10 people from three towns around Maine. They’ve been invited to Belfast to give a presentation there.

Word will surely get out in other ways. Since Mount Desert Island is a vacation destination that receives almost 200 cruise ships each summer and millions of tourists annually, visitors may help carry the message elsewhere, says Friedmann. They’ll notice the plastic bag ban, and they’ll see more solar panels going up, the new electric vehicle-charging stations, and the efforts of restaurants to reduce waste. Because they come for the natural beauty of the island — its beaches, its rocky shores, its pine-fragrant forests — Friedmann expects the efforts to ring positive.

“It’s a ripple effect,” says Caroline Musson, now 15 and a freshman at Mount Desert Island High School. “If one person starts to do something, then the people around them will start to do something, and the people around those people will start to do something, and it just spreads.”

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Tracy Staedter is a writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Illustration by Peter Horvath

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