Tourists on sidewalk in Bar Harbor, Maine
Visitors walk on a busy sidewalk in Bar Harbor, Maine, in May. Credit: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

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A local climate action task force in Bar Harbor, Maine, sees challenges and opportunities in the island town’s small size and large seasonal population.

Bar Harbor has only around 5,000 permanent residents, but it swells to about 18,000 people in a typical summer tourist season, according to the town’s website. It’s one of four towns on Mount Desert Island, which is also home to Acadia National Park.  

After more than a year of discussions, Bar Harbor’s Task Force on the Climate Emergency is preparing to present its Climate Action Plan to the town council, which will need to decide what’s practical and how to proceed on a much smaller budget than what’s available in larger downstate cities.

“The goal of the action plan is really to give the town a blueprint of where to move in the future,” said Sirohi Kumar, a student representative on the task force who also attends Mount Desert Island High School.

Kumar has been a key player in the island-wide push for climate action and was part of the effort to establish the task force soon after the town declared a climate emergency in late 2019.

The climate crisis “is a real threat,” she said, “and if we don’t commit to fighting it publicly, and if we don’t hold our leadership accountable, then it’s just going to be something that’s discussed in hypothetical terms.”

Local movements growing

Jack Shapiro, climate and clean energy director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said local climate movements like the one in Bar Harbor gained steam after a 2018 special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that noted the significant damages that could be avoided if global warming were limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than 2.

“The wave of communities declaring a climate emergency and towns coming together to create a specific climate action plan isn’t new, but it certainly has picked up in the last few years,” Shapiro said. 

In Maine, the state’s 2020 “Maine Won’t Wait” climate plan has similarly spurred local action, though no official tally is available for the number of municipalities that have adopted climate action plans. 

“We have seen that the state’s climate plan has generated greater interest in local climate efforts,” Anthony Ronzio, deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Policy Innovation and the Future, wrote in an email. In addition to Portland and South Portland, other municipalities that have a plan or committee include Brunswick and Belfast. Several municipalities recently received funding from the state for local climate resilience planning.

“I think the big difference between … smaller communities and larger cities is capacity and, of course, resources,” Shapiro said. Many smaller towns aren’t able to afford full-time staff dedicated to energy and sustainability, he said.

The Bar Harbor task force has identified the need for a “sustainability coordinator,” and it has funding it could use to hire a consultant. But since it wasn’t enough for someone to work full-time, Kumar said, the group will have to be strategic in how and when it brings that person on. She said it’s possible Bar Harbor will pool resources with Mount Desert Island’s other towns to hire a full-time coordinator, but she added that would be challenging in itself.

Ambitions are high in Bar Harbor’s latest draft plan, from integrating carbon emissions impacts into all municipal decision-making processes by 2024, to eliminating the use of fossil fuels in the town’s municipal operations by 2030. Some measures, such as a proposed local solar array, could require bond funding, which means voters will have to be supportive. (The plan is available online and could change substantially as it advances.)

The goals are lofty with the understanding that the town council will decide what’s feasible, Kumar said. “As a group, we’re supposed to say what is necessary in order to fulfill our goals as a task force.”

Unique opportunities and challenges

At the same time, she said, some goals may not be that difficult to achieve, in part due to the town’s small size. For example, Bar Harbor’s current municipal electricity needs could be offset by the proposed solar array, which would be about 2 megawatts. (The town will likely have to find other resources as it electrifies more.)

The town council is already in discussions with A Climate to Thrive, a nonprofit on Mount Desert Island that’s committed to making the island energy independent by 2030, about bringing the solar array to fruition. It’s proposed for a site that’s been used as a dumping ground in the past, whose topography and location make it difficult to find other uses for it.

“I think there’s going to come a point when we might have to spend money,” said Tobin Peacock, a member of the task force who owns a local construction company. Support for climate action in the town generally seems to be broad right now, he said, but when it comes to raising electric bills or issuing a bond, he worries residents might become hesitant.

“Ideally, the town should start with projects that have multiple levels of benefit,” he said, like demonstrating cost neutrality and greenhouse gas reductions. The proposed solar array is a good example of the complexities projects raise, he said. “Answers are still being researched…to make sure this is a real benefit to the town and its efforts to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions and control electrical costs.”

He said it’s been heartening to hear support from town officials, including department heads who are already considering measures to reduce emissions.

“I think there are some things in there that might be difficult to achieve, but we’ll definitely be on a good path,” said Erin Cough, a member of the town council who serves as the council’s liaison to the task force. A 2030 deadline might not be realistic in all cases, she said, but she said the council and many departments are already considering decisions that could go a long way toward achieving what the task force wants.

She noted a recent greenhouse gas emissions evaluation by the task force showed that the local elementary and middle school is a high carbon emitter, largely because of its heating oil use. The town is in the process of planning a renovation of the school (a bond vote in November could move the design of the project forward) and the new facility would be LEED-certified and far more efficient, Cough said.

Transportation is also a concern. In Maine, like many states, most of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. Bar Harbor draws commuters and tourists onto the island, most of whom drive cars.

Kumar also noted that many people make long commutes to work in Bar Harbor, as high demand for vacation rentals makes affordable year-round housing hard to come by. Jackson Laboratory, a local research institute, is building apartments for employees who want to live closer to work.

In addition to a transportation audit to assess the biggest greenhouse gas contributors from the sector, the draft action plan suggests various electric vehicle incentives, like giving free access to Acadia National Park for electric vehicles. Suggestions like this would be up to the park to decide, and Peacock said they could be broadened to propose discussions with park officials on ways to promote low-emissions travel.

For Kumar, the plan’s educational aspects are especially important. The draft plan proposes measures to update the town’s website and reach residents through local media, and to develop educational programs at local schools. Ensuring residents are aware of basic facts about the climate crisis, and about the work of the task force, will help the group get support for more ambitious proposals, she said.

They’re already trying to get support for the plan now, in advance of a planned presentation to the town council that could come as soon as September. After meeting online during most of the pandemic, they’ve only begun meeting in-person in recent months, so they haven’t had the public exposure that in-person gatherings would have allowed.

Kumar and Peacock also view tourists as a prime opportunity for engagement. Given how many visitors the town draws, Peacock said, “I think there’s an educational opportunity to us if we play it right,” especially by working with major tourist attractions like the park.

“I think this is why Bar Harbor is unique among so many other Maine towns,” Kumar said. “We have the ability not only to decrease our own carbon emissions and make isolated change here, but to impact people who come from all over the world and possibly bring our change to all sorts of other places.”

David Thill

David is a New York-based journalist who has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care. He covers northern New England for the Energy News Network.