Rallying on the Portland City Hall steps: Democratic Senate candidate Betsy Sweet is at top. (Photo: Lance Tapley)
Rallying on the Portland City Hall steps: Democratic Senate candidate Betsy Sweet is at top. (Photo: Lance Tapley)
Our Confronting the End of Everything series discusses how, politically, Maine people could contribute to avoiding the environmental disasters facing them and the Earth. Those human-caused disasters include global warming, a million species at risk of extinction, and the alarming decline in the number of insects and birds. Coming soon: Is Governor Mills for real on climate change? Then: What about the Republicans?

At noon on Friday, September 20, a gorgeous sunny day, a spirited rally about love and death took place in Portland. Love and death of the Earth.

There was singing, chanting, colorful signs and banners, and speeches by young people repeating the words “climate crisis” instead of “climate change.” The signs made me remember the old joke cartoon about the bearded guy walking the sidewalk with the sign “The End of the World Is Nigh.” That message was the subject of the rally. Unfortunately, it’s no longer a joke.

This was the biggest — about 2,500 people showed up — of Maine’s dozen-plus Global Climate Strike rallies that day. Held in front of City Hall, it was organized by teenagers to protest inaction on the part of adults in the face of, for young people, the very personally threatening catastrophe of global warming. A 13-year-old girl was the master of ceremonies.

Hundreds of students had left southern-Maine schools to attend, joined by many older people, especially of their grandparents’ age. Thousands of such rallies around the world brought out an estimated 4 million people.

The Portland event was full of youthful energy, but there was pathos to it. One sign asked: “Why are we studying for a future we do not have?”

“I would love to have children someday, and I want to give them the best world possible,” Fairen Stark, 18, a first-year student at the Maine College of Art, told me. She had a worried look.

Besides global warming from greenhouse gases, other environmental disasters disturbed these teenagers. In the interviews I conducted, they told me about the pollution of the oceans and the demise of much of the world’s wildlife.

They saw the solutions as political. I asked Ciel Antoine, 16, a high school junior, what’s the first thing that needs to be done to deal with global warming. “There should be some kind of recognition by the people in power of the problem,” she answered.

The rally’s overarching political demand was for enactment of the congressional Democrats’ Green New Deal proposal, which would dramatically mobilize the United States to attain net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years — all the time left, according to some experts, before vast, runaway climate changes begin.

(“Net-zero greenhouse gas emissions” means reducing enough of our global-warming emissions or withdrawing enough of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, from the atmosphere — such as by planting trees — that, on balance, the nation’s contribution to the atmosphere of these gases would be zero.)

Modeled after Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s economic New Deal, which was invented to fight the Great Depression, the Green New Deal would transform the economy, including the creation of millions of jobs. Several Democratic presidential candidates support it, at least in general terms.

The “policy problem from hell”

The kids’ protests are backed by polling. “More than 7 in 10 teenagers and young adults say climate change will cause a moderate or great deal of harm to people in their generation,” reported the Washington Post on a poll it conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But ... “It’s the policy problem from hell” for politicians, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication, told the news website Politico.

“Politicians need to take hard decisions now to help the world in 2050,” he said. But “political incentives favor short-term thinking. The danger is that by the time we feel serious pain and it’s really obvious we need to act, the situation will be beyond repair.”

Because of the virtually unanimous warnings by climate scientists, however, the climate crisis is becoming a larger and larger issue for Democrats. But the political options seem problematic.

Should Democrats work with Republicans when Republican politicians are led by President Trump and financed by oil and gas money? Trump’s repetition that global warming is a hoax conveys the spirit of the GOP news releases that land in my inbox every day.

And how will Democrats bring their many single-issue-focused constituencies together in this cause? There are other pressing issues: health care and income inequality, for example. How can Democrats mobilize poor people, who are the first to be affected by climate change but vote at a low rate?

Some progressive Democratic officeholders have concluded that an important option is to put into the Green New Deal some issues that at first glance seem unrelated — making the proposal look like, as Republicans claim, a liberal wish list. Its original Democratic iteration, for example, associated with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, includes universal health care and guaranteed jobs. (The Green New Deal was originally proposed by the Green Party.)

But such a broad Green New Deal has not been put forward just to assemble a successful political coalition. To lower emissions fast, there’s little doubt that a thorough revolution of the economy is required.

For instance, with the health-care industry sucking up twice as much money per person as in other advanced countries (that have better health outcomes), unless health care is reformed the funds for a Green New Deal will be limited.

The lens of the U.S. Senate race

Let’s look now at how Democrats are responding to the political demands of the climate crisis through the lens of Maine’s big race in 2020, for the United States Senate seat occupied by Republican Susan Collins for the last 22 years.

It’s an important race for the whole country. Even if Democrats win the presidency, they need a Democratic Senate to get things done on climate issues and just about everything else. Collins’s seat is one of the few believed to be in play.

Collins’s success in Maine has rested on her reputation as a moderate. That reputation is based on some liberal votes, most recently to help preserve Obamacare. She has always done well with independents and even Democrats.

But now she’s in a Trump-dominated party that has turned sharply to the right. According to the FiveThirtyEight polling website, in the previous Congress Collins voted with Trump 77 percent of the time. In 2017, for example, she voted to give huge tax reductions to the rich and the corporations. It’s no wonder millions of dollars have poured into her political war chest, but those tax cuts have proven extremely unpopular.

It was her support in 2018 of abortion foe Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court, however, that cost her most dearly. A Morning Consult poll last spring found that 48 percent of Maine voters disapproved of Collins, “a net slide of 16 percentage points from earlier in the year.”

The poll also showed that 46 percent of independents disapproved of her and — strikingly — so did 34 percent of Republicans. In our highly polarized political environment, her portrayal of herself as a middle-of-the-roader is hurting her from both ends of the political spectrum.

Although Collins lists on her Senate website her support of some measures to limit or adapt to global warming, she may be vulnerable on the climate-crisis issue. Politico reported:

“Collins said she supports Mitch McConnell as [Senate] GOP leader, which is all some colleagues need to hear. ‘Any vote to put Mitch McConnell in the leader’s chair is a vote to stifle climate action, period, end of story.’” That’s from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the Rhode Island Democrat.

To take her on, national Democratic powers early coalesced around the Legislature’s speaker of the house, Sara Gideon, of Freeport. That’s evidenced by the out-of-state money and national political-action-committee endorsements flowing to her campaign. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed her the day after she announced.

She’s the establishment candidate. That usually means the moderate candidate. Which she is. Moderate often means vague positions. Which she has. Her website says this about the climate crisis: “Speaker Gideon has a deep commitment to protecting our environment and fighting climate change.”

Although Gideon is pegged as the frontrunner in the Democratic primary race because of the national support she has received, clouds are gathering above her. Here’s a small one: She has been accused of being inaccessible to the news media. On Maine Public Radio’s “Political Pulse” program, veteran State House reporter Mal Leary recently said, “You can’t reach her. She’s not available.”

Here’s a bigger cloud: Republicans tore into her for campaign-finance-law violations that they said broke the law, but that Gideon said were just mistakes. She had apparently reimbursed herself from PAC funds for political contributions she had personally made. According to the Associated Press, she sent a $3,250 personal check to the U.S. Treasury to try to rectify the situation.

Another cloud over Gideon is a potentially significant challenge. This is from a progressive candidate, Betsy Sweet, who in an interview told me she supports the Green New Deal. She brought up the need to take billions of dollars in federal subsidies going to the fossil-fuel industry “and apply it to the research and development and implementation and production of green energy.”

She also supports comprehensive tax reform to require the rich and the corporations to pay more, Medicare-for-All (“take the profit out” of the health-care system), and in-depth campaign-finance reform. She helped write and in 1996 pass Maine’s Clean Election Act.

Sweet is usually described as a longtime lobbyist — a negative word — but her lobbying has been for social-service and reform-minded nonprofits such as Disability Maine, Planned Parenthood, and Open Primaries Maine. She once directed the Maine Women’s Lobby.

One advantage Sweet has over Gideon, at least until Gideon starts spending from her pile: Sweet is probably better known, having run for statewide office before. In the 2018 Democratic primary for governor, she came in third, beating out former House speaker Mark Eves.

Public radio reporter Steve Mistler, also speaking on “Political Pulse,” said that in this race — though it has just begun — “Betsy has been more present” than Gideon. She’s out there meeting with voters. Sweet told me that she would shortly have her ninth and tenth “town meeting.”

When earlier I had seen Sweet at the Portland rally, she said of Gideon, “North of Augusta no one has ever heard of her.” Gideon’s campaign spokesperson said her candidate didn’t attend Global Climate Strike rallies “due to scheduling conflicts.” (Green Party senatorial primary candidate Lisa Savage was also at the Portland event.)

Sweet possibly has another advantage over Gideon. Candidates often win or lose based on their emotional connection with voters. An outgoing person, Sweet has had a business as a personal coach and “intuitive healer.” She has a master’s degree in “spiritual psychology.” (Detractors are already portraying her as too woo-woo. When I brought this up, Sweet replied: “I have a professional therapeutic practice,” and “my spiritual practices are my own.”)

Another factor in her favor: Sweet has been endorsed by Justice Democrats, the national progressive group that helped Ocasio-Cortez upset a powerful House Democrat in what had been thought was his safe New York City district.

Who will win? Who will represent the soul of the Democratic Party in Maine as it confronts both Susan Collins and the challenge of global warming? Gideon is the moderate, cash-rich frontrunner, but it’s important to remember that the Maine Democratic presidential caucuses in 2016 went for democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders two-to-one, not establishmentarian, moderate frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

Assume you’re a Democrat. Who should win? Your answer may depend on whether you agree with the kids that confronting global warming requires radical change.

(Gideon didn’t make herself available for questions about issues, her background, and the Senate race until after deadline and then extremely briefly on the telephone. See sidebar, “Gideon’s After-Deadline Response.”)

A big change stirring?

Notice the words “democratic socialist” a few lines back. The Green New Deal has become more than a congressional proposal. Because it implies a thorough transformation of the economy and society, it also has become a battle cry for a kind of mass movement against corporate capitalism.

History demonstrates that revolutionary changes — the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights battle — are often associated with mass movements. The original New Deal wouldn’t have occurred without the aggressive agitations of the liberal Democrats, labor unions, socialists and Communists of the era.

Many of the young people in Portland believed that fighting global warming was dependent on fighting the power of global corporate capitalism. As the environmental movement’s 16-year-old wunderkind, Greta Thunberg, told the United Nations in the most moving speech I have heard in my lengthy, skeptical-journalist’s career:

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”

Among the demands the Portland rally’s leaders made to the Portland and South Portland city councils was “immediate emergency funding” to implement the climate policies needed. “This is not a time to proclaim, ‘no new taxes,’” stated the draft resolution submitted to officials.

By contrast, moderate Democratic Gov. Janet Mills has ruled out new taxes, including refusing to push for reversing former Republican Gov. Paul LePage’s big tax cuts for the rich.

It’s uncertain which way the political winds will finally blow in 2020, but within the Democratic Party now they’re not blowing moderately. The grassroots are stirring vigorously. There’s a reason Republicans now are regularly calling Democrats “socialists.” Not just because they want to revive McCarthyism, but because Democrats are in fact becoming more socialist, at least in the Sanders model, which is more like Scandinavian social democracy than textbook socialism.

Such an alternative is gaining in popularity. American young people, according to an Axios poll, favor socialism over capitalism 61 percent to 58 percent. According to a Gallup poll, 43 percent of all Americans now think socialism would be a good thing for the country, with the majority of Democrats viewing socialism positively since 2010, including 57 percent in 2018.

Thus, fulfilling the nightmares of the right, many on the left indeed see the climate crisis as requiring the replacement of, or the heavy regulation of, capitalism — not small business, but its big corporate manifestations.

Although deeper causes of the crisis may be the worship of money and “fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” corporate capitalism is without doubt the immediate cause of this terrible mess since far and away it’s the dominant economic system.

On climate-change partisanship, Greta Thunberg has a warning: “No matter how political the background to this crisis may be, we must not allow this to continue to be a partisan political question.”

But there’s no choice, the left says, because the very partisan people who make a lot of money off the current economic system, who deny the science, or who propose inadequate, moderate measures to deal with it — they are the problem.

The signs tell the story. At the Portland rally, one sign declared: “The Earth isn’t dying. It’s being killed. Those doing so have names.” Another said: “There is no wealth on a dead planet.” Such slogans have political implications.

Driving by the State House the other day, I saw a big sign among a small group of protesters: “Capitalism = Genocide.” That kind of statement wouldn’t have been seen in Maine in the past. Feelings are running high. As the Republican plunge to the right shows, feelings are running high on the other side, too.

A few years ago, I worked for a month as the minder of an Al Jazeera TV network newsman-videographer who had spent years covering civil wars and revolutions in various hellholes in the Middle East and Africa. He was taking a break by covering stories in tranquil Maine.

At one point I asked him, “What’s needed before a revolution takes place?”

“People need to be dying in the streets,” he replied grimly.

Consider this: “We are really to the point where we’re seeing bodies in the streets from severe flooding and severe wildfires,” John Holdren, President Obama’s former science advisor, told the New York Times recently.

As Greta said at the United Nations: “Change is coming whether you like it or not.” She wasn’t just talking about global warming.