Community Forum: The work is worth it

By Ruth Poland


This island has made major strides to combat climate change in the past few years, but despite these gains, it’s easy for an individual to feel apathetic about our ability to make a difference.

I have been interested in environmental issues since I was in high school, but I didn’t do much about my concerns surrounding climate change until I began working with A Climate to Thrive (ACTT) here on the island.

I am devoted to my job as a teacher and work long hours outside of the school day. I also have a toddler and another baby due in July, and when I find myself feeling exhausted and nauseous, I have to ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Isn’t there someone else with more time? More financial resources to contribute? I could be home sleeping or grading or putting my baby to bed or helping my husband make dinner for the first time in weeks.”

It is at this point that I remember how much we have already accomplished, and how much we have to lose if we don’t try. One of the most inspirational experiences for me happened this fall, when my AP Environmental Science students had the opportunity to give a presentation on sea level rise to then-gubernatorial candidate Janet Mills.

I had worked with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute to build curriculum around sea level rise and its local impacts, and my students had studied the issues and worked tirelessly to create and practice a presentation on their findings. I could feel their nervous excitement as we rode over to the Bar Harbor Public Works solar farm. My students were intensely aware that their work had the potential to influence the direction of our state’s policies on climate change and the environment.

They stood silently and formally as Mills and her entourage settled into the conference room. As each student stepped forward to make their case, my heart was in my throat with a rare blend of empathetic nerves and pride.

They explained the science behind sea level rise and described graphs showing a high likelihood of between 8 and 11 feet of vertical rise by 2100. They displayed maps showing that even three feet of sea level rise (expected by 2050 under current trends) will flood the causeway and highways on Mount Desert Island in seven places during regular high tides.

One student spoke movingly about his family’s tradition of fishing and how it will be impacted by ocean warming and rise. Another described the trees she could see dying in her backyard where an estuary brought salt water farther inland with each passing year.

They described the global groundswell of youth political engagement around these issues and urged Mills to take action to save their future — one they did not create but have been dealt by the inaction, ignorance, or apathy of prior generations.

As we boarded the bus back to school, my once-shy and somber students exploded into excited conversation:

“Do you think she’ll really do anything?”

“We should do this stuff ALL the time!”

“I feel so inspired to take action again!”

“When are the elections?”

I was overcome with gratitude for these young people who have so much hope for the future and so much passion to make a difference. I was so proud of their hard work and their strength and poise in the face of a presentation that even adults would have found intimidating.

It is easy to feel that we will never be able to do enough. This past fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a meta-analysis showing that an increase of even 1.5 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels, which we expect to occur by 2030, will have devastating effects on crop production, storm intensity, biodiversity and sea level rise.

A new analysis published in the journal Science on Jan. 11 found that oceans are warming 40 percent faster on average than previously estimated (and Maine is experiencing some of the fastest warming on the planet).

When I find myself wondering if all the time and effort and thought is really worth it, I think about these and so many other students and friends who have inspired me.

I think about the kind of person and role model that I want to be — someone who lives their beliefs and works hard to change the world for the better, even in the face of potentially insurmountable odds. I think about the feeling I had when Gov. Mills announced at the start of her inauguration speech that addressing climate change was going to be a major priority for her administration. So while there is still so much to accomplish, there is no doubt in my mind that I will continue to work towards a better future because there is no end to the inspiration that my students and friends, who are able to envision and enact change for a better future, can provide.

I invite you to come find your own inspiration on Sunday, Feb. 10, from 2-5 p.m. at the annual ACTT Summit. I hope that, like me, you will feel renewed enthusiasm and vigor to make our vision of energy independence by 2030 a reality.

Ruth Poland, a board member of A Climate to Thrive, teaches biology, environmental science, and Island Pathways at MDI High School. She lives in Bar Harbor.

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