Climate Crisis

New Group Wants to Accelerate Climate Action in Rhode Island


PROVIDENCE — Before Donald Trump jolted the environmental movement Nov. 8, Ken Payne and J. Timmons Roberts were already looking to inject urgency into Rhode Island’s climate-change and renewable energy efforts.

Both have significant achievements in Rhode Island environmental initiatives. Payne’s environmental résumé goes back more than a decade, when he helped write the state’s imperfect, yet-improving renewable-energy standard. He chairs the state distributed generation council, which establishes prices for the nationally recognized renewable-energy incentive.

Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University, is a foremost expert on climate policy and a force behind innovative climate initiatives such as a statewide carbon tax.

Both redirected the fervor from the failed divestment movement at Brown University into writing the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014, which created the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), a remaking of the stalled state climate committee.

Today, Payne and Roberts are dissatisfied with the EC4’s progress and its underlying assumptions about climate change. Roberts, in particular, is dismayed that emission-reduction targets overlook the proposed Burrillville power plant and new fossil-fuel infrastructure proposed for the state.

Both say they want their new initiative to augment EC4 objectives and serve as a messenger for public action on its recommendations.

“EC4, it’s needed but it’s not sufficient,” Payne said. “Ours is a job of argumentation and not of criticism.”

That augmentation will progress through grassroots, local initiatives guided by their new group, tentatively called the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island.

“If you need action, start in the community and create interstice actions and expectations for change,” Payne said. “Otherwise the likelihood of something to occur is small.”

Payne noted that Rhode Island’s current pace of installing some 700 solar arrays annually isn’t enough to reach the critical mass required for a wholesale shift away from fossil fuels.

“Do the math and 700 per year doesn’t get you to the innovator stage in Rhode Island,” Payne said.

The innovator stage is the first stage in the theory of diffusion of innovation, the bell curve that new technologies typically follow if widespread use is reached.

Payne, who has a master’s degree in community planning and served as director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, believes wholesale adoption of renewable energy must start with grassroots action. Through a community-driven approach, residents shed their doubts and insecurities about solar arrays once they see their neighbors installing panels on their roofs.

“Their decision to act is based on what’s going on in the community,” he said.

Ultimately, Payne said, “We don’t need to say doom and gloom only. We don’t need to be in denial. We just need to get on with things.”

Roberts’ career has centered on climate change. He recently led a student group to Marrakech, Morocco, for the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22).

Roberts is keenly aware of the changing dynamics by climate change. The emission assumptions used for state emission-reduction targets for the Resilient Rhode Island Act, the legislation that created the EC4, were changing before the ink dried on the governor’s signature.

“We’re planning for fixed targets that are no longer scientifically justified,” Roberts said.

To take more aggressive steps in mitigation, Roberts said, “We need a credible program of doable actions that get us moving in the right direction, that get us to achieve the more ambitious client reductions that we need.”

The calculus is straightforward. Rhode Island spends $3 billion annually importing fuel for running cars, generating electricity and heating buildings. Shifting that money to create local renewable energy, Roberts said, would bring jobs, cleaner air and resiliency in natural disasters “that pipelines and power plants don’t get you.”

As a goal, the new alliance could also help Gov. Gina Raimondo meet targets of moving from fourth to first in national rankings for energy efficiency and solar power.

“We’re here to help her do that,” Roberts said.

Payne wants to follow the same community-led movements that created local land trusts and historic preservation groups, and couple that with the transformative power of consumer demand, which in a few years dramatically increased the market share of products such as organic food and craft beer.

“Systems respond to what people want,” Payne said.

Rhode Island sits in the middle of one of the most wealthy and progressive regions of the world. But with 400 miles of coastline, it’s also one of the most susceptible areas to flooding and erosion. Thus, Payne and Roberts say initiatives such as multi-model transportation, solar energy and electric vehicles not only create jobs and save money, they make the state more resilient to a changing climate.

Coastal inundation is one of five factors that make Rhode Island suited for an energy transformation, Roberts said. The others: Rhode Island is small and adaptable with an effectual state government; lacks a fossil-fuel sector that would suffer from a shift to local energy, only new jobs to create; doesn’t have an influential lobby of climate deniers; a large Catholic population is more supportive than other states for taking on climate change, a mindset helped by Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment.

The new committee of 15-20 members has a working name of the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island. Monthly meetings begin in December. Two briefing papers will be released when the project officially launches on Earth Day 2017.

Payne said Rhode Island is perfectly suited to advance large-scale changes. The state is basically a single metro area governed by the General Assembly, which gives it the ability to pass transformative laws and initiatives.

“Depending upon which road it takes, tiny Rhode Island could be a leader of a new energy age for the U.S., or a middling actor locked into fossil fuel infrastructure for decades,” Roberts wrote in an essay about Rhode Island facing a choice between a future of renewable energy or fossil fuels.

And there is urgency.

“Things are happening with climate change much faster than scientists predicted 10 years ago,” Roberts recently told ecoRI News. “We need a credible program of doable actions that get us moving in the right direction, that get us to achieve the more ambition climate reductions that we need.”


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  1. "Payne wants to follow the same community-led movements that created local land trusts and historic preservation groups…"

    Yes. But… Mr. Payne, I hope you can get it through to Governor Raimondo the blow she will deal to this vision of "community-led movements" if her appointees to the Energy Facilities Siting Board, Ms Coit and Mr Agrawal, approve the Burrillville power plant.

    Hundreds of citizens throughout rural western RI, who a year ago were by-standers in environmental politics, today ardently follow and engage politically with each emerging scrap of news concerning the power plant, and with that every other piece of news concerning the bigger picture. These are people from a wide spectrum of general political ideology engaging authentically in the politics of coalition. These are exactly the citizens you need to fulfill your vision. They are your largest reservoir of potential recruits to your cause with demonstrated skill in community organizing. But, if the Governor is so politically blind to stab them in the back, you lose, too. Without this demographic, hope for your vision will vanish. Anything Gina Raimondo or Senator Whitehouse subsequently has to say about saving our environment will fall on embittered ears. These people, by and large, would indeed rather burn in hell than cooperate with those two if they come to such a hypocritical decision on the power plant.

    Wouldn’t it all be so different if the power plant were proposed, as one once was, for the Town of North Kingston at Rome Point?

  2. We’ve had our photovoltaic system with the help of for ten years now without issue. One advantage that goes unmentioned in the article is the satisfaction of knowing that where electricity is concerned, a greedy corporation that treats its customers and workers egregiously isn’t making a profit off of our family. That satisfaction never gets old!

  3. Seems there are many dedicated good folks addressing the electricity sector, but much can also be done on the transportation sector, the largest source of greenhouse emissions here where the trends are not so good.
    For example, we still have sprawl increasing as Citizens Bank, Neighborhood Health Plan and even parts of state government move out of the core cities, requiring more and more driving. State government, URI and public colleges vastly subsidize driving by offering free parking, even downtown where they have no transit incentive, even as more space is paved over for that parking. The Speaker wants to give an enormous $215 million tax break for those with the most cars and/or most expensive cars. Tolls have been taken down (the one toll bridge the toll for RI hasn’t been raised since forever) while bus fares, already well above average, may soon go up as much as another 50 cents. As it is, our bus system is doing little to help in the climate fight as it is mostly seen as just for the poor, downtown business interests want to get rid of them even going downtown. MBTA fares are also scheduled to increase again to even as we are told weekend commuter rails service is threatened. Plans to improve already electrified Amtrak service face local opposition that want the improvements somewhere else. Biking, a more truly zero-emission form of travel is largely stalled as bike path progress without earmarks has been so slow and real on-road improvements are mostly impossible die to reluctance to give up any parking. And with the Trump administration, planned improvements in auto efficiency standards are now at risk.
    I think unless real efforts are made to address all that, the transportation sector will continue to increase emissions.

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