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Climate skepticism is rife in Down East Maine. But some say there's room for common ground

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Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
Boats on the Narraguagus River near Milbridge at dawn.

National polls suggest more than half of Americans think their family and their community will be harmed by human-caused global warming. Even more think the federal government is not doing enough to fight climate change.

That's not the story in rural Washington County, Maine.

With a population of just over 31,000 and about 18% living below the poverty line, there are other pressing issues, such as the cost of living, that are getting more attention. There's also skepticism about climate change even though the region's natural resource-based economy is inextricably linked to a rapidly warming sea.

This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."

At the Winter Harbor Lobster Coop, Billy Bob Faulkingham and his two-man crew are loading up with herring and other lobster bait before heading out to fish on a warm fall day. Faulkingham started lobster fishing with his father at the age of three. He's now in his 40s with a family of his own. When he's not on the water, he also serves as a Republican state legislator whose district includes part of Hancock and Washington counties, which both border the Gulf of Maine.

"The waters are warming, we all know that. I mean, you can look at the water temperatures anywhere and see that's not in doubt," Faulkingham says.

In fact, the Gulf is warming more quickly than almost any other body of water on the planet. But ask him what's on the minds of his constituents and his answer is consistent with what other polling shows is top of mind these days.

"People here are worried about how they're going to fill their oil tanks for the winter. And how crazy their grocery bills have gotten. And have a lot of questions about why their electric bills keep getting higher," Faulkingham says.

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Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham, whose district includes part of Washington County, loads up with bait before going fishing for the day.

The other issue dominating local conversations are the proposed federal regulations intended to prevent lobster gear from entangling and killing endangered right whales. Lobstermen say the new rules will wipe them out and drag their struggling fishing communities down with them. So, for many people, climate change is not a priority.

"To be completely honest, it's way down on the list," Faulkingham says. "You know, I usually get asked about that by people outside of my district."

"Actually, it's the last thing on my mind," says Robert Alley of Beals. "When I go to bed at night, I just want a good night's rest, not worry about tomorrow. We'll take that as it comes."

Alley is a state legislator from Beals. A lifelong fisherman, veteran and former school principal, he's currently one of just two Democrats representing Washington County. And when it comes to understanding climate change, he's not convinced scientists have it right.

"They've done experiments. They've done this. They've done that. They've put billions into it. And I can't say if they know the answer today themselves," Alley says.

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Susan Sharon
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Maine Public
Rep. Robert Alley, a Beals Democrat serving his last term in the Legislature.

Research suggests dozens of species of fish will decline in number over the next two decades. And as waters warm, both lobsters and right whales have already started moving north. But even some fishermen remain skeptical that the climate is changing, or that human activity is causing it.

Outside Manaford's Market in Jonesport, fisherman Adam Stanwood says he doesn't see evidence of the trend.

"I don't. I don't see where there's much difference," Stanwood says as he loads a bag of groceries into his truck. "Might notice it in 100 years but not now. I don't."

winter harbor lobster coop.jpg
Susan Sharon
/
Maine Public
At the Winter Harbor Lobster Coop, herring, red fish and pogies are used as bait in lobster traps. Lobstermen from Winter Harbor fish out of Washington and Hancock counties.

Stanwood, who says he heats with oil, suggests that higher prices for gas and oil heat are not the result of supply chain issues or Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but rather part of a government effort to eliminate the use of fossil fuels — a conspiracy theory that has been widely shared on social media without evidence.

"They're trying to force everyone to electric with these fuel prices and fuel shortages, so I'm going to try to avoid anything electric that I can," says Ben Durkee, a lobster bait dealer from Jonesport.

A recent report from more than 200 scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change finds that temperatures are warming at an unprecedented rate and greenhouse gas emissions are higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

The panel says a catastrophe can be avoided, but the world has to act quickly. Like Stanwood, Durkee is skeptical that scientists understand the problem or what individuals can do to stop it.

"They preach climate change and then they hop in their fancy jets and fly around, producing more toxins," Durkee says.

Dr. Tora Johnson, a social scientist and geographer at the University of Maine at Machias works on climate change and has surveyed municipal officials about their climate change beliefs. She says she found that only about a third of people understood the reality of climate change and accepted it. The survey was part of an effort more than half a dozen years ago to help coastal communities understand future risks.

"And everybody said, 'Oh, you're nuts. You can't do that in Down East Maine,'" she says.

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Susan Sharon
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Maine Public
The bridge between Beals Island and Jonesport in Oct. 2022.

But as a social scientist, Johnson says she understood that there are certain ways of communicating and best practices that help people engage, help them feel supported and not judged or blamed. Many people, she says, also feel powerless to do anything about a problem as overwhelming as climate change.

So, Johnson started by asking what they were most concerned about and what they needed.

"When you're a municipal official, climate change manifests itself as things like increasing frequency of backups in your wastewater treatment plant, roads that flood repeatedly during a storm event," she says, "and more elders living in older homes, not really able to weather the storms."

Emergency managers told her they needed help planning for weather emergencies. They wanted technical assistance and money for infrastructure projects. Johnson says she and her students built tools to help them — storm surge scenarios, for example — and they provided information about grants and other resources.

For her, it's less important to convince people about the science behind climate change than it is to help them adapt.

Mark Brown, who lives in Marshfield near Machias, says he has learned that it's not productive to raise the subject of climate change in conversation. In the past, he helped organize a few people to undertake several climate strikes as part of the group 350 Downeast. But it was difficult to keep the protests going and the group has since disbanded.

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Susan Sharon
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Maine Public
Billy Bob Faulkingham and a sternman row out to Faulkingham's lobster boat on a recent fall morning

Instead, Brown turned his attention to addressing fossil fuel consumption on a small scale. For a couple of years he volunteered with a local Window Dressers project to help homeowners insulate drafty windows and reduce oil and heating costs.

"Don't even mention saving energy," he says. "Saving money. That's the big issue."
Brown says it has been disheartening to not be able to engage more with his neighbors about a subject that he's passionate about. But he says Washington County is a beautiful place to live and he's hopeful that development of cost-saving, community solar projects will help change the narrative.

Back on his boat in Winter Harbor, Faulkingham says he's not a fan of solar farms because of the toxic materials they contain, heavy metals such as lead and cadmium. And he's planning to fight tooth and nail against development of offshore wind. He thinks it's too destructive for the marine environment.

Instead, Faulkingham says the state should be looking for ways to adapt to the changing climate with policies that are protective of fish and fishermen.

It's a tall order, but in Johnson's experience there just may be room for common ground.