A Climate Conversion

Paper mills to aquaculture facilities, retired military bases to incubators for green start-ups, the possibility of re-purposing a shipyard for destroyers into a hub re-programmed to 21st century needs and jobs: industries are shifting away from conventional and failing ways of doing business to an embrace of enterprising and inventive opportunities for a sustainable future.

We speak of climate change and the climate challenge; we articulate our growing despair over what can be done at what scale to mitigate or adapt; we fear that no single person, or no single action, can make a difference on a scale of consequence that is affecting every aspect of our lives. We cling to straw, Styrofoam container and plastic bag bans,knowing that, while each bit helps and counts, the total does not even approach a transformative response to the problem.

So what constitutes a real solution? Some friends and neighbors here in Maine, ardent advocates for change and social justice, have begun a movement for conversion — the re-purposing specifically of Bath Iron Works, a subsidiary of General Dynamics, and the state’s largest defense contractor and a major employer, that is now contracted for construction of Zumwalt destroyers for the U.S. Navy at its shipyard on the Kennebec River.

BIW is a small element in the so-called American military industrial complex. The U.S. Navy is a massive collection of firepower and mobility, and is larger than the next 13 national fleets combined. The cost to operate, maintain, and renew this Navy is astronomical. A Zumwalt destroyer costs $7 billion. General Dynamics has already received corporate subsidies of $194 million from the State of Maine and the city of Bath, with another $45 million recently approved by the state legislature. How many times do the taxpayers have to pay for these ships — at federal, state and local levels — to a for-profit company that in 2017 compensated its CEO at a reported $21 million and otherwise distributed ample profits to its private shareholders? The entire enterprise is a house of cards justified in the name of national security.

But changing climate is now also understood as a challenge to national and local security. Sea level rise threatens to inundate the thousands of U.S. Navy coastal facilities in the U.S. and around the world. Ironically, for over a decade now, the Pentagon has acknowledged the immediate risks and threat-multiplier effect of climate-caused conditions in the form of flooding, drought, wildfires, dislocation, refugee relocation, in turn leading to further political instability, escalating conflict, and the possibility of climate war. Additionally, the Pentagon has the largest carbon footprint on the planet, generating more than 70% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and uses more oil than that consumed by 175 countries combined. U.S. foreign policy is predicated on oil, with military deployments engaged overtly and covertly in the protection of global oil resources worldwide. Bath Iron works is a very small part of a very big situation. Frankly, as such, it is dispensable, American national defense not really compromised by one less destroyer.

But BIW could become a model example of climate conversion, a shift from a fragile and artificial viability into a new place attuned to the new realities of the climate-changed world, a more stable workplace for a skilled workforce re-programmed to 21st century needs, national and regional, and engaged in the creation of new responses to changing natural, financial, and social circumstance. BIW could run on new non-fossil fuel energy; it could build new cargo ships and coastwise transports that will be required to service offshore wind or distribute goods beyond the already exceeded capacity of highways and trucks; it could fabricate alternative energy devices, high speed trains, electric buses, wind and solar arrays, hi-tech greenhouses, underwater turbines, aquaculture and desalination equipment, and other applied design and manufacturing production for a sustainable planet. It could determine its own future, not just rely on presidential, congressional, or private corporate budgetary whims desperately affirmed by the State political delegation.

There are, in fact, stunning examples of such a conversions — one in Bath, Maine, of all places, where the closing of a naval air station brought sudden devastating despair to some 5,000 employees and the community economy. However, now, a regional re-development authority has mobilized to use public finance to convert and improve the facilities and to attract aerospace industries, small manufacturing companies, green start-up businesses, plastic recycling facilities, and other 21st century enterprise to re-employ workers, enlist new skills, and attract new investors with inevitable positive consequence for the community and its quality of life.

A second comparable example is a new state-of-the-art aquaculture facility just down the road in Belfast, Maine, being constructed on the site a recently bankrupt paper mill, from the closing of which the community thought it would never recover.

Out with the old, in with the new; that’s called regeneration. Swords into plowshares, isn’t that how the story goes? These are examples of applied optimism, a positive reaction to the climate challenge, not as closing and collapse, but as opening and opportunity. Invention and conversion: these are pathways to the future.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.