Earth Day: we need a new way to make people care

Tomorrow we honor the planet, without which we wouldn’t exist.

Bridgton will be cleaning up Stevens Brook on Earth Day, and the kids will be making kites. We’ll celebrate the preservation of Bald Pate Mountain with a hike to the summit, and a “Prize Patrol” car by DancingTrees will be on the lookout for neighbors cleaning their yards — giving praise to those who do.

There’s a strong environmental conscience in our region, thanks to the leadership of such organizations as the Lakes Environmental Association, Loon Echo Land Trust, and Greater Lovell Land Trust.

But when it comes to the big picture, let’s face it, there’s really not much to celebrate.

We live in a world where the reality of climate change is either neglected or denied by policy makers, despite the increasing frequency of tornadoes and hurricanes and droughts in recent years.

Just this past Saturday, a massive series of tornados killed 45 people across the U.S. and reached North Carolina, where such storm systems almost never occur. Pigs and livestock were lifted into the sky, oh my.

When we bend over to pick up litter on Friday, we can feel good in that moment. But unless our national leaders begin to show leadership about climate change, we might as well kiss our “arses” goodbye.

There’s more energy in our atmosphere than there used to be. The atmosphere is 5% moister than it was just a few decades ago, and man-made carbon dioxide emissions are the most reasonable explanation. 2010 was the warmest year on record, when we saw drought, heatwaves and fires across Russia, and megafloods in Pakistan, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere.

Not every natural disaster is unnatural now, but the evidence seems clear that global warming is contributing to more and more extreme weather events as our unrestrained consumerism alters the planet’s natural climatic systems and damage vital ecological assets, including oceans, forests and glaciers. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, total carbon emissions from all forms of energy use had already hit 21.2 billion metric tons by 1990 and are projected to rise to 42.4 billion by 2035 — a 100% increase in less than half a century.

And what are our national leaders doing about this? Well, in the federal budget just passed by Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency has been cut by $1.6 billion — a 16% reduction. It was one of the agencies hit the hardest, along with health funding. The cut came despite the fact that polls showed 77% of Americans wanted Congress to leave the EPA alone, since they’re the only group responsible for protecting the public from polluting corporations.

And in a case brought by states and environmental organizations on global warming that will be heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the Obama administration is siding with American Electric Power and three other companies, urging the Court to throw out the lawsuit.

Maine political leaders, by contrast, have shown some real courage in the global warming arena. In 2007 they recognized that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, climate change will continue for many years because of the CO2 we’ve already released. As a result, Gov. Baldacci asked the University of Maine and the Climate Change Institute to analyze the effects of climate change in Maine over the next 50 to 100 years.

What the study found was, that Maine faces a warmer and wetter future, with a longer mud season and shorter periods of hard freeze that will affect the timber industry. There’ll be more rain in winter, earlier snowmelt, peak river flows and ice-out on Maine lakes — which we have all seen this spring. Ice-out dates have advanced up to two weeks since the 1800s, resulting in shorter seasons for ice fishing, skating, skiing and snowmobiling. “Southern Maine could ultimately stop having safe ice conditions,” the study states. Regional sea surface temperatures have increased almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit off the Maine coast since 1970, and the rate of sea-level rise has intensified — eight inches since 1912, based on tide-gauge records in Portland.

Our forests of balsam fir and spruce will increasingly give way to red maples and other hardwoods, and we may have fewer spruce, loons, chickadees, lynx, halibut, and moose; and more oaks, bobcat, summer flounder and deer, the study found. By 2080, the study found, all of Maine will have the warmer, wetter conditions conducive to Lyme Disease. See it for yourself at

It’s not that the information isn’t out there. It’s more that, in the folly and hubris with which we’ve treated natural forces since the Industrial Age began, we’re still choosing to ignore it — even when it hits us over the head. On the 41st anniversary of the first Earth Day in April of 1970, we need a new way to make people care. Maybe it will be pigs flying in the air.

Perhaps we should change the name of Earth Day to “Survival” Day, or “Change or Die” Day.

— G.G.

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