2015-12-04 / Community

Board split on climate conference support

By a narrow margin, selectmen approve sending letter asking president to sign global climate change agreement
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — In a vote that mirrored what may be a growing divide over the “settled science” of climate change, the Board of Selectmen voted 4-3 to ask President Barack Obama to sign an agreement at a global environmental meeting taking place this week in Paris.

The Sierra Club is asking Maine municipalities to send letters to Obama urging him to “take the lead in moving the global community toward a strong and comprehensive international climate agreement.”

That’ll probably be an easy sell as in his 2014 State of the Union address, Obama laid out his view, saying “the debate is settled, climate change is a fact.”

After lengthy debate at their Nov. 24 meeting, Selectmen Shiloh Schulte, Deborah Beal, Christopher Cluff and Chairman Kevin Donovan directed Town Manager Barry Tibbetts to send the letter.

Opposing the measure were Daniel Boothby, Richard Morin and Ed Karytko.

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, being staged from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, aims to secure a legally binding agreement on all nations to reduce emissions of so-called greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane.

The World Meteorological Organization said on Nov. 25 that 2015 will likely go down as the warmest year on record, having reached a “significant milestone” of 1 degree Celsius, on average, above pre-industrial levels. Average concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere have recently crossed above 400 parts-per-million, it said, in support of the notion that man is the main cause for global warming.

More chillingly, a study in the October issue of the journal Nature Climate Change predicted that mean surface temperatures in some Middle East states could reach 170 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, enough to counter the natural cooling mechanisms in the human body, making those area unfit for habitation. Already, some U.S. officials, such as Secretary of State John Kerry, have suggested the recent exodus of refugees from Syria is due as much to climate change as to the ongoing civil war in that nation.

On Nov. 24, selectmen were presented with a draft of a letter on the topic by local resident and Maine Sierra Club member Bob Wuerthner.

In that letter, Wuerthner notes the actions selectmen took to reduce Kennebunk’s carbon footprint soon after signing on to the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement in 2007. Among the local initiatives – adoption of a noidling policy for vehicles at local schools and public places, drafting of an energy audit at all municipal buildings, and strengthening of composting and recycling efforts.

In June, selectmen re-upped their commitment, putting their collective weight, in the form of the town manager’s signature, to an updated version of the mayoral agreement.

Wuerthner said that work was why the Sierra Club targeted Kennebunk as a town it hoped would write to the president. Already, he said, 12 Maine communities have signed versions of the Sierra Club letter, including Bar Harbor, Falmouth Freeport, Portland, Saco and South Portland.

“It’s sort of an honor to be selected,” he said.

Wuerthner’s localized letter says Kennebunk “is committed to reduce our carbon footprint,” claiming any agreements brokered at this week’s Paris conference “will greatly benefit our community by both reducing our energy costs and by maintaining the quality of the air we breathe by reducing the amount of fossil fuel pollutants we release into the air.”

However, not everyone has jumped on the climate change bandwagon. Weather Channel co-founder John Coleman has called global warming, or at least the presumed man-made origins of it, “the greatest scam in history.”

In a series of articles earlier this year, the British newspaper The Telegraph revealed that graphs issued by weather stations in South American and the Arctic had been adjusted upward by as much as 1 degree Celsius over actual recorded temperatures, affecting results of data sets issued by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the National Climate Data Center, which use those graphs to extrapolate temperatures across 80 percent of the planet not covered by surface weather stations.

Those stories mimicked the “climategate” scandal of 2009, when emails hacked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, led to allegations that scientists there monkeyed with data in order to keep the research dollars flowing. However, eight different investigations found no evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct in that case.

More recently, reports such as the 2012 study in the Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics have linked climate change to natural cycles of the sun, citing little or no direct impact from human activity. Meanwhile, at a meeting of the United Kingdom’s Royal Astronomical Society this past summer, Valentina Zharkova, a mathematics professor at Northumbria University, issued a report claiming that reduced sun spot activity will lead to lower temperatures that, by 2030, will resemble the “little ice-age” that persisted from 1645 to 1715.

Still, for Selectman Karytko, the problem with the signing the Sierra Club letter was not a concern for the science involved, but a resulting loss of local control.

“From my perspective I’m not sure why the town is getting involved with sending a letter like this to the president for a global conference,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of different opinions in the community. As a representative, I try to speak for all the residents of the community, not just one segment, and I think we have to be very careful about what we say, or what we support, or don’t support.

However, Selectman Schulte, who works at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, said reaching out in this way can have “tangible and real results.” After all, he said, renewed interest in an international agreement came about, in part, because of local efforts like the mayoral agreement policies enacted in Kennebunk, after the last global effort, known as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, more or less of fizzled out.

“One little town sending a letter of support on its own won’t really make much difference,” Schulte said, “but when you start to get numbers together, and you start to show there is a real groundswell of support, this sort of thing actually can matter.

“This issue is the one thing that will affect all of us in this room, I don’t care how young or old you are,” Schulte said. “It already is affecting us and it’s going to affect us more. Our national security is at risk from this phenomenon and it is not going to get better without significant action on the international stage. Anything we can do to support that, I’m in favor of.”

Still, Karytko, despite being a self-professed avid recycler, remained skeptical of ceding control over the environment to federal or even foreign powers.

“I’d rather make the decisions here at home and not put it in the hands of other people to dictate to us exactly what we need to do,” he said. “I just have a real problem with letting some international agency put together a set of rules which we are going to abide by.”

But Schulte countered that environmental issues neither begin nor end at the Kennebunk town line.

“This is not a problem Kennebunk can solve,” he said. “It’s not a problem Maine can solve. It’s not a problem the U.S. can solve, not on its own. There’s no way we can solve this by ourselves. It’s going to be an international solution and we should be at the forefront of that rather than waiting for others to do it.”

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