Rhode Island Climate Policy Butts Heads with Special Interests
Lawmakers and lobbyists cling to status quo to maintain power, delaying climate-change mitigation and ignoring the consequences
January 15, 2018
The local climate-change alarm is sounding, but like a car alarm, it’s considered more of an annoyance than a call to action. In fact, the many taxpayer-funded studies and reports that explicitly outline the actions needed to address climate-related change in Rhode Island are little more than dusty security blankets, shaken out when needed to comfort select audiences or ripped as fake by deniers to rile up their base.
These publicly funded documents are largely forgotten, so politicians can promise unrealistic economic growth, so Statehouse bosses can create specific short-term jobs, and to appease special interests.
Future generations will eventually pay the price, plus interest, if the present is unwilling to make sacrifices.
Science and studies were ignored, for example, to approve a seawall — against Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) guidelines that oppose new structures that harden the state’s eroding shoreline — to protect a popular Wakefield establishment, despite the fact the hardened structure will only delay the inevitable and hasten coastal erosion to the manmade structure’s left and right.
In 2013 Rhode Island added section 145 to its Coastal Resources Management Program to include “consideration of sea-level rise.” Section 145 charges the CRMC with developing regulations for planning and management purposes to accommodate a base rate of expected 3-foot to 5-foot increase in sea level by 2100 in the siting, design, and implementation of public and private coastal activities.
The decision to protect a beachfront bar and a crumbling oceanfront road from a rising sea with a Band-Aid isn’t trivial. It sets precedent. When state lawmakers and officials pick and choose which recommendations to follow, environmental degradation is exacerbated. Infrastructure crumbles. Public health worsens. The inevitable damage is costly. Real fixes become more expensive.
“We don’t have a governing majority that believes in the moral or economic urgency to take bold action on climate change,” Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, recently told ecoRI News. “We have a ton of communities that see upfront and personal the impacts of climate change. It’s a real-life problem, but we have decision-makers in the Legislature and elsewhere who don’t get the moral urgency. They think it’s an issue for their grandkids.”
In mid-November, at the Community College of Rhode Island’s Newport campus, a Newport County Resiliency Roundtable was held to discuss “key actions and investments to make Newport County and Rhode Island’s residents, economy, infrastructure, health system, and natural resources more resilient to the impact of climate change.” It was one of nine resiliency roundtables held in Rhode Island between Sept. 27 and Dec. 7.
Gov. Gina Raimondo and the state’s chief resilience officer, Shaun O’Rourke, both spoke at the Nov. 17 public workshop. The governor noted that Rhode Island, and Aquidneck Island in particular, care about climate resiliency. She said one of her top priorities is climate change.
“Climate change is real,” Raimondo said. “We are vulnerable. We need to make communities more resilient. It’s about preserving Rhode Island for future generations, and making smart investments when it comes to climate resiliency. I want our state to be a leader in climate-change resiliency.”
O’Rourke said Rhode Island is “planning for action” and “we need to move the ball forward.”
He encouraged attendees to visit climatechange.ri.gov, lauded the efforts of the “amazing” scientists and researchers in Rhode Island who are working on this issue, and both he and the governor praised the work of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4).
“We need to better prepare ourselves for the impact of climate change,” O’Rourke said.
Press releases, cliches, carefully crafted quotes, catch-phrases, websites, slaps on the back, and study committees, however, aren’t substitutes for substantial action and sacrifice. Without those two essential ingredients, a “resilient” path forward can’t be forged. Local biodiversity will be lost, natural resources will be exhausted, and public health will be jeopardized.
The Department of Environmental Management (DEM) boasts that “Rhode Island continues to be out front nationally in tackling climate challenges.” Yet, recommendations and guidelines in taxpayer-subsidized studies are routinely ignored. Nationally recognized work by CRMC, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island, URI’s Coastal Resources Center, and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program is sidestepped when money and influence come into play.
O’Rourke told those gathered in November at CCRI Newport that, “We need to make sure we recognize all the work being done to address climate resiliency.” He failed to mention much of it is ignored for profit and political gain.
He and the EC4 have a deadline of July 1 to submit a resiliency plan to the governor. At the November event, he called the initiative’s working groups “SWAT teams” and said the state needs to determine how it will respond to climate “shocks” and “stressors.”
When he introduced the governor at the Newport resiliency roundtable, O’Rourke said, “Her leadership is moving us forward on addressing climate change.” He didn’t provide any examples, but his quote does beg the question: What has the government of Rhode Island, most notably its elected officials, really done to address climate change?
There’s been plenty of tough talk, most of it after elections; task forces have been assembled; countless studies have been commissioned; and numerous executive orders and bills have been signed — will they be followed or enforced remains a legitimate question — but the state’s best defense against a changing climate, its collection of dwindling natural resources, continues to be picked apart.
When Rhode Island politicians and their appointed bureaucrats do talk about climate resiliency, their concern is largely focused on manmade “assets” and economic opportunities. The climate/environmental importance of wetlands, forestland, open space, and even Narragansett Bay are far too often ignored — unless they can be taken advantage of financially.
Rhode Island’s elected representatives, for instance, didn’t even flinch when, right before the 2016 General Assembly session ended, they approved putting a bond to expand the Port of Providence, which included the possibility of using taxpayer money to fill in 31 acres of Narragansett Bay, on the November ballot.
The idea to dump fill-in material into the Ocean State’s most important natural resource — it was eventually dismissed after considerable blowback, led by Save The Bay — highlights the disregard many at the Statehouse have for Rhode Island’s environment.
The idea to fill the long-abused bay to make room for an industrial pier registered zero concern with lawmakers. No one in the General Assembly questioned the possible environmental impact.
During a press conference in early March of last year, Gov. Raimondo said she expects Rhode Island to reach its goals for mitigating climate change. She failed to explain how, except to talk about renewable-energy goals and jobs.
“We can meet the challenge and we can create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs for the people of Rhode Island in the process,” she said.
Two years earlier, during a February 2015 meeting of the EC4, council chairwoman and DEM director Janet Coit noted that she had spoken with the recently elected governor several times about climate change.
“She sees this issue as an economic issue, a very important economic issue for Rhode Island, not just because of some of the challenges it poses but also some of the opportunities that we have,” Coit said at the time.
Since Raimondo was elected in 2014, ecoRI News has contacted the governor’s office about a dozen times to request an interview with Raimondo to speak with her about climate change and local environmental issues. She has never granted ecoRI News an interview.
The Ocean State has warmed about 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900. Spring is arriving earlier and bringing more precipitation, heavy rains are more frequent, and summers are hotter and drier. The sea is rising, heavy downpours and storm surge are increasingly causing floods that damage property and infrastructure.
Narragansett Bay’s water temperature has increased 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 50 years. The warming waters are changing the biodiversity makeup of the bay. The average temperature across Rhode Island in 2017 was 1.7 degrees warmer than customary, making it one of the eight warmest years in recorded Rhode Island history, according to the National Weather Service.
On its website DEM says, “Climate change is here, and it threatens the vitality of our people, culture, and homes.” The state agency has noted that the Ocean State, with some 400 miles of coastline, is “uniquely vulnerable, and we know the impacts are not limited to coastal locations.”
Last year DEM released the findings of a $222,900 study that examined the impacts of climate change on Rhode Island’s 19 major wastewater treatment facilities. Of the 19 facilities, which combined treat nearly 120 million gallons of wastewater daily, seven are projected to become inundated in a catastrophic weather event, like the March 2010 floods.
Climate change is directly linked to human activity, overpopulation and consumption. The many challenges to mitigating and adapting to a changing climate are closely tied to environmental protections, public health, public transportation, land use, and social justice. Dealing with this immense problem by focusing foremost on protecting built assets and creating an industry that profits on climate-change mitigation will leave much and many behind.
Two of Rhode Island’s popular beaches, Easton’s Beach in Newport and Sachuest Beach in Middletown, are losing about a foot of shoreline annually, according to the Aquidneck Island Planning Commission.
Every summer, various Ocean State beaches are closed to swimming, because polluted stormwater runoff from heavy rains dumps bacteria and nutrients into local waterways.
One of the beaches that is routinely closed for a few days every summer to swimming, Easton’s Beach, was closed Jan. 13 to surfing, because of sewage overflow as a result of heavy rains and snowmelt.
Three governors, three mayors, two attorneys general, and two DEM directors have allowed a polluting scrap-metal business on the Providence waterfront to operate illegally since 2009. Even as Rhode Island Recycled Metals brazenly degraded the Providence River and upper Narragansett Bay, the state watched as the illegal operation illegally expanded.
For nearly a decade the Allens Avenue metals recycler has contaminated the Providence River and upper Narragansett Bay with polluted runoff and fuel from derelict vessels the company has no business storing. While the business ignores cease-and-desist orders and state law, Rhode Island addressed the problem with little urgency.
The property, a heavily polluted site taxpayers already helped clean up once, originally became contaminated between 1979 and 1989, when state officials failed to regulate the computer and electronics shredding facility operating there. The waterfront site has tested positive for toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyl, a carcinogen commonly used in electronics.
The ponds that supply the Newport Water System and its nearly 15,000 service connections with drinking water are impaired. The reservoirs experience frequent algae and cyanobacteria blooms, because the raw, untreated water in the system’s nine reservoirs is polluted by elevated levels of phosphorus and other contaminants.
While the system’s tap water remains safe to drink, thanks to expensive, upgraded water-treatment facilities, the reservoirs’ water quality continues to be stressed, largely because of human activity.
Brian Zalewsky, of DEM’s Office of Water Resources, has noted that excessive phosphorus loading starts to change the ecosystem, and public-health and habitat concerns are created.
Sources of phosphorus and other pollutants, such as nitrogen, are varied, but are principally linked to stormwater runoff carried by impervious surfaces and washed-away fertilizers from agricultural operations, golf courses and lawns.
To deal with the vulnerability of its drinking-water supply, the Newport Water Department annually treats its reservoirs with an inorganic compound. The active ingredient in copper sulfate crystal is copper sulfate pentahydrate. The EPA limit for copper sulfate in drinking water is 1 part per million. This limit was set to prevent a disagreeable taste from copper in drinking water and to provide adequate protection from toxicity.
In 2016, the Newport Water Department had to dump 28 tons of copper sulfate crystal into its nine reservoirs.
Decisions that counter climate-adaptation measures and energy projects that will further the consumption of fossil fuels and hinder Rhode Island’s plans to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions seem to verify the Statehouse’s ongoing climate nonchalance. Sacrifice is for others. Unpopular but wise decisions are for someone else to make.
“When you go into the Statehouse you’re suddenly in a bubble,” Rep. Regunberg said. “Lobbyists for the American Petroleum Institute and the Chamber of Commerce are always there. Corporate lobbyists are always up there.”
The manufactured climate-science debate gives voice to conspiracy theorists who argue carbon dioxide is plant food. It empowers the status quo, and leads to decisions that, at the very least, lack common sense.
The Warwick Mall was flooded by several feet of water during the late-March floods of 2010. Most stores had to be gutted and all inventory was declared a loss. The mall reopened without the owners addressing any future climate-change impacts. The mall was rebuilt to its preexisting condition.
After Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, 29 beachfront businesses in Westerly were rebuilt. Only five altered their building design to reduce the impact on the environment and to make the structure more adaptable to erosion and intensifying coastal weather.
Coastal adaptation options include retreat, increasing setbacks, rolling easements, bioengineering, vegetation enhancement, and buying vulnerable properties. Many of these options take more political will than, say, hardened structures such as seawalls and riprap.
Shoreline hardening, however, alters natural beaches and intertidal ecosystems. By slowing erosion, these manmade barriers starve downdrift beaches and marshes of needed sediment. As coastlines retreat up against seawalls and other fortified structures, there is a loss of lateral beach access, loss of foraging habitat for wildlife, and loss of habitat for egg-laying horseshoe crabs.
A 2013 report, the result of a joint venture between Providence-based Save The Bay and CRMC, examined alternatives to shoreline hardening available to homeowners and municipalities.
State officials have dabbled with some of the report’s recommendations, such as nonstructural techniques and “living shorelines” strategies, but have ignored infrastructure abandonment and retreat. Shoreline hardening remains a popular choice. In fact, about 25 percent of Narragansett Bay’s shoreline is armored.
Coastal development in the Ocean State exists in about 54 percent of the 500-foot coastal buffer and, according to the joint report, has resulted in conditions that require shoreline hardening to protect existing infrastructure and make retreat or abandonment more difficult options.
“While much of the hardening of the Rhode Island coastline has happened after major storms, hardening also occurs in a piecemeal fashion as development gets permitted around the state,” according to the report. “As shoreline protection structures reach the end of their design lives and sea level rise accelerates, tough decisions need to be made. … We cannot possibly afford to protect every stretch of coastline that will be inundated in the coming decades.”
The 14-page report also noted that Rhode Island’s shoreline is migrating landward, largely as the result of sea-level rise and other climate impacts. Basically, coastal salt marshes that have nowhere to migrate are being lost. Their disappearance is significant.
These unique ecosystems are a priceless resource with irreplaceable benefits. Salt marshes are the protectors of Rhode Island’s most important cultural, economic, and environmental resource: Narragansett Bay.
The economic value of salt marshes related to recreational and commercial fishing activities alone is estimated to be $6,417 an acre, according to James Boyd, CRMC’s coastal policy director. These coastal wetlands help Rhode Island’s tourism/outdoor-recreation industry generate some $2 billion annually.
More than 50 percent of the bay’s salt marshes, however, have been destroyed during the past three centuries. Much of the remaining marshes have been diminished by coastal development and a changing climate. They, like other wetlands, protect against flooding.
A smattering of exceptional wetland restoration efforts, such as the Ninigret Pond Salt Marsh Restoration and Enhancement Project and the Sapowet Point Restoration and Coastal Adaptation Project, will be washed out with the tide if Rhode Island fails to take more significant climate-change action.
In December 2015 Gov. Raimondo issued a Lead by Example executive order to increase energy efficiency and the use of renewables across state government. According to a government press release, the order empowers agencies “to implement innovative solutions to reduce our state’s carbon footprint, address climate change, and make government more efficient.”
DEM has since embraced the governor’s order by replacing some 1,000 light fixtures with high-efficiency LEDs. The state agency also has introduced renewable energy to several of its facilities, including a “green” beach pavilion at Lincoln Woods, nine solar projects, and two wind turbines, at Fishermen’s Memorial State Park and Campground in Narragansett and East Matunuck State Beach.
The 100-foot-tall wind turbine at Salty Brine State Beach in Narragansett felled by a mid-March storm last year will be replaced by solar panels, according to DEM director Coit.
ecoRI News spoke with both Coit and Office of Energy Resources (OER) commissioner Carol Grant during a Jan. 12 conference call. Both officials noted Rhode Island’s many climate-change successes and initiatives, including the governor’s Lead by Example order that directs state agencies to:
- Procure 100 percent of state government electricity consumption from renewable sources by 2025. Coit said that goal remains a target, as state buildings, including three across the street from the Statehouse now with solar panels, continue to incorporate more renewable energy.
- Create a 10 percent reduction in energy consumption by 2019. Grant said state government has already reduced its energy consumption by 11 percent. She noted that 70,000 street lights have been upgraded to LEDs.
- Ensure that 25 percent of new cars entering the state fleet will be zero-emission vehicles by 2025. Coit said the standard practice at DEM is to buy hybrid or electric vehicles (EV). She noted that Rhode Island now has 84 EV charging stations.
- Achieve high-performance green building standards, such as LEED certification and International Green Construction Code.
- Encourage employees to commute by foot, bike, or public transit.
“This Executive Order demonstrates Governor Raimondo’s commitment to curb spending and make government more efficient,” Michael DiBiase, director of administration, is quoted in the press release. “Achieving these goals will reduce our carbon footprint, address climate change and save money for taxpayers.”
Sending out a press release with goals seemingly pulled from the warming atmosphere and encouraging state employees to drive less — the Statehouse has done little to properly fund or even encourage public transit — actually demonstrates a lack of seriousness when it comes to addressing climate change. The press release makes no mention of how to accomplish any of its directives, and DiBiase’s quote predictably prioritizes cutting government spending over lowering greenhouse-gas emissions.
Less than a year before the governor signed her Lead by Example executive order, in June 2014, Rhode Island established reduction targets for greenhouse-gas emissions. The Resilient Rhode Island Act calls for “new capacities, purposes, goals, indicators, and reporting requirements for climate change mitigation and adaptation in public agencies.”
The legislation also calls for state carbon emissions to be cut to 85 percent below their 1990 levels by 2050. A 2016 study commissioned by the EC4 concluded that even with the near elimination of fossil fuels to generate electricity, heat homes, and power cars, Rhode Island will only be able to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions 62 percent by 2050.
In flagrant noncompliance of the act’s ambitious climate-emissions goals, lawmakers and bureaucrats, most notably those in the governor’s office, embraced the construction of a nearly 1,000-megawatt natural-gas/diesel power plant in the woods of Burrillville. If built, the Clear River Energy Center would become Rhode Island’s largest fossil-fuel power plant and the largest emitter of carbon emissions in the state.
Gov. Raimondo enthusiastically endorsed the project when it was announced in 2015. During a press event that summer, Invenergy CEO Michael Polsky and Raimondo jointly announced the project. The governor thanked the out-of-state fossil-fuel developer for investing in Rhode Island.
“I know you have choices about where you could be and I’m pleased you’ve chosen Rhode Island, and you should know we are going to make sure that you are successful here,” Raimondo said.
As Rhode Island Public Radio reported, seven months earlier Polsky had donated $1,000 to the governor, the maximum annual legal limit from an individual to a political candidate. Two of Invenergy’s lawyers, Richard Beretta and Alan Shoer, also made political contributions to the governor in January 2015.
For the past year, however, Raimondo’s public support of the project has been less effusive, as project opponents became more vocal and her poll numbers waned. Now when speaking about the project, she repeatedly says she wants to “let the process play out,” something she didn’t do when she spent two years celebrating the facility’s construction and providing it with needed political momentum. She has never publicly expressed concerns about the proposed power plant’s climate or environmental impacts.
Nearly three years after the Clear River Energy Center fossil-fuel project was announced, Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin recently became the first statewide elected official to publicly oppose the natural-gas facility, saying, “I believe this power plant is not in the best interest of the state, the taxpayers, or our natural resources.”
Rhode Island’s congressional delegation has remained silent on the project.
A 2015 report by the Rhode Island Division of Planning titled Energy 2035: Rhode Island State Energy Plan stresses the importance of renewable energy in reducing the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 45 percent by 2035.
“Our existing energy system exposes the state to excessive risk, costs, and environmental damage. Yet, the resources we use to power our lights, heat our homes, and fuel our vehicles have scarcely changed for decades. To improve the quality of our energy system, we need a new approach,” according to the 169-page report.
Political support for the Clear River Energy Center, to be built in some of Rhode Island’s most productive and valuable forestland, and for the continued expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure highlights Statehouse disconnect from climate-change reality. Elected officials, at both the state and federal level, continue to push the petro-funded myths that natural gas is “clean energy” and a “bridge fuel.”
In a letter last January to President Trump, House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan — a 2018 candidate for governor — begged for help in building more natural-gas pipelines in Rhode Island, saying the stalled Algonquin Gas pipeline project needs to be reactivated to help local residents and businesses have a better life and be more successful.
Morgan told ecoRI News that she believes climate change is real, but said humans are intelligent enough to overcome the potential impacts.
“Climate change is happening, but human beings are smart and we’ll figure it out,” she said. “Mastodons in Rhode Island couldn’t adapt and died. Humans can adapt.”
Her apparent disregard for biodiversity — the natural system that sustains life — is disheartening. Her lack of empathy for the misery climate change will wreak on the vulnerable is discouraging, especially since she told ecoRI News she was particularly concerned about her elderly constituents need for relief from Rhode Island’s high cost of living. She said more natural gas would help provide that needed relief. Climate change, however, has and will disproportionately impact the elderly.
But Morgan’s views on the relationship between fossil fuels, climate change, the economy, and quality of life fall in line with the collective thinking at the Statehouse: talk about prices without discussing costs; ignore the impact beyond your own backyard.
For example, last month attorneys general from nine states, including Rhode Island, filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit to vacate the EPA’s about-face on a program designed to curb ozone pollutants traveling from upwind states to downwind states.
“It’s been long established that Rhode Island and the other Northeast states are negatively impacted by pollution from upwind states, and this latest decision by the EPA flouts sound environmental science and puts many Rhode Islanders — especially young children and older people — at serious risk of health issues,” AG Kilmartin said.
Rhode Island collectively spends about $4 billion annually on imported fossil fuels that emit more than 11 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Much of this imported fuel is fracked natural gas from Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Wyoming. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is a controversial extraction technique first developed in the late 1940s. The practice relies on toxic chemicals and massive volumes of water, and produces vast amounts of wastewater.
Fracking has been linked to the contamination of drinking water, among other health and environmental impacts, and contributes to methane pollution, an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas that is far better at absorbing heat than carbon dioxide.
The 70-year-old fracking technique is not clean, and the celebrated bridge being built by natural gas only leads to more fossil-fuel burning. Rhode Island’s demand for more “clean energy” from natural-gas producing states causes localized health and environmental concerns similar to those created by burned Midwest coal that is blown into the Northeast.
Peter Nightingale, a theoretical physicist and tenured professor at the University of Rhode Island, claims lawmakers and state agencies such as OER and DEM and commissions like the EC4 ignore the lifecycle of methane and don’t account for fugitive releases of the greenhouse gas from fossil-fuel infrastructure.
“They ignore half the story to fool you into thinking natural gas is something it’s not,” he said. “Fracked gas is a global problem. It’s as immoral as using stolen goods, but only worse. They only talk about what is being emitted in the state. They ignore everything else.”
Renewables are considered, or at least should be, the energy source of the present and future, and Rhode Island has embraced that fact by building the first offshore wind turbine facility, the Block Island Wind Farm, in the country.
In fact, Rhode Island’s renewable-energy laws and incentives — combined with strong energy-efficiency programs — are some of the best in the country, and Gov. Raimondo has embraced the use of wind and solar.
OER’s Grant noted that the number of solar companies licensed in Rhode Island has increased from six in 2014 to 48 today. She said there are currently 3,575 solar systems — residential, commercial, municipal, and state — now operating in the Ocean State.
A concerning disconnect, however, remains when it comes to siting energy projects in Rhode Island.
Meeting rising energy demand while minimizing the climate/environmental impact is a widely recognized, although often ignored, issue — see, Clear River Energy Center. But there’s an additional challenge that warrants attention: land-use implications of energy demands.
This growing pressure is especially acute in Rhode Island, where land is at a premium. But Rhode Island politicians — see, Morgan, Patricia — routinely rally around energy projects that promise to deliver electricity at the lowest price. As a result, energy projects are typically directed away from developed land, because it’s cheaper to build from scratch. These open-space projects inevitably ignore environmental-siting concerns and long-term external costs. It’s been estimated, for example, that at least 200 acres of forestland will be impacted if the proposed natural-gas/diesel power plant is built in the state’s northwest corner.
But clear-cutting forests to make way for energy projects isn’t a fossil fuel-only problem.
In Hopkinton 30,000 trees are being chopped down to make room for solar arrays. In Ashaway, to make space for 43,000 solar panels, Southern Sky Renewable Energy LLC is clear-cutting 60 forest acres.
“I mourn the loss of 30,000 trees, I really do,” Hopkinton Town Council member David Husband is quoted in a Westerly Sun story. “But something’s going in there sooner or later.”
Grant noted that energy issues are “incredibly complicated, but we are all working to reduce emissions.”
“The siting component is a part of that,” she said. “We need a thoughtful, best possible approach for siting clean energy. Thoughtful siting and thoughtful land use are important. As the governor says, we need clean, afford, reliable energy.”
Coit said land conservation is vital and siting issues important.
“We need healthy river corridors and healthy forests,” she said. “We need solar panels on working farms.”
If Rhode Island truly wants to mitigate climate impacts, it could start by better incentivizing renewable-energy developers to build in places that don’t weaken the state’s ability to withstand future climate forces. Lawmakers could help energy developers erect solar arrays on vacant and underused development, like the city of East Providence did at the Forbes Street landfill, or help businesses cover parking lots with solar canopies.
A mix of economic development, population growth — a 1 percent increase in population generates a 5 percent increase in development — warming temperatures, and more extreme weather creates a complex political issue, especially when decisions are unduly influenced by campaign contributions, pro-business organizations, and climate-change deniers.
The Ocean State’s concentration of population, power, and wealth in climate-hazardous landscapes — i.e., along its coastline and in flood zones — is a significant driver of exposure and losses, and taxpayers are footing much of the bill when climate-related disaster inevitably happens.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, has some 15,000 active flood insurance policies in Rhode Island, covering nearly $4 billion in property. Twenty of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities have acreage sitting below the floodplain, according to a 2016 report titled Special House Commission to Study Economic Risk Due to Flooding and Sea Level Rise.
At a time when climate-change adaptation demands strong leadership, the modus operandi of state officials is to bow to influence and money, and watch as Rhode Island’s impervious footprint is expanded, fossil-fuel reliance is clung to, trees are bulldozed, and wetlands are filled.
Private property rights are, of course, tricky. But a multinational corporation looking to expand fossil-fuel infrastructure along a toxic-filled, climate-vulnerable location in an urban neighborhood already stressed by public-health impacts shouldn’t be given more latitude than a no-name homeowner looking to build an addition too close to a wetland.
Average Joe’s addition request would quickly be denied. But National Grid’s request to expand its liquified natural gas (LNG) operations along the Providence waterfront has been met with a collective Rhode Island government whimper. In this time of states’ rights and calling out President Trump for his many environmental assaults, the Statehouse, with the exception of a few lawmakers, can’t even muster the political fortitude to question the LNG project’s climate, environmental or public-health impacts.
CRMC’s 10-member council genuflected to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when it came to addressing this ongoing LNG issue — an unsurprising move, considering Gov. Raimondo unceremoniously dumped the council’s three most outspoken environmentalists this past summer.
Rep. Regunberg, who has attended many of the LNG public hearings, said he was disappointed by the unwillingness of both the governor’s office and CRMC to stand up for the beleaguered Providence neighborhood where this unwanted project is proposed.
“Our leaders should be saying this project doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Ratepayer dollars are going to be used to invest in more fossil fuels.”
In fact, many of Rhode Island’s development projects, energy or otherwise, don’t make sense or cents in this time of increased heat, more frequent and intense storms, and an acidifying ocean. Natural resources, the state’s best protectors against a changing climate, are continuously diminished to, for example, jam a casino into a wetland area in Tiverton, or build an office park in the woods of Johnston, despite the conspicuous fact acres upon acres of developed land remains vacant or underused in Rhode Island.
In a state where a “cranes-in-the-sky” mentality has produced tunnel vision, forestland is becoming increasingly fragmented; swelling amounts of sewage and wastewater, and the chemicals used in treatment, deluge Narragansett Bay; and more impervious surfaces rush pesticides, fertilizers, motor oil, antifreeze, and debris into local waters, stressing public drinking-water supplies.
Rhode Island needs to start building things the state actually needs in places that make sense economically, environmentally, and socially, or at the very least commit to using its significant inventory of development-ready space to build stuff for political points and corporate profit.
The issues of land use and drastically reducing the state’s consumption of fossil fuels are the biggest climate-related challenges Rhode Island needs to address. Elevating beach pavilions and installing generators at senior centers won’t make the Ocean State more climate resilient.
To properly address the state’s many climate-change challenges, Regunberg said Rhode Island needs to build a coalition that includes liberals, conservatives, businesses, and environmentalists.
“We’re struggling because there’s so much anger and mistrust,” he said. “To take green infrastructure to scale we need a significant movement. There’s been some good rhetoric, but we need to follow up with concrete action.”
Many of Rhode Island’s elected officials like to proclaim that the Ocean State is a national leader when it comes to climate-change adaptation/mitigation. Rhode Island is most assuredly a national leader when it comes to creating climate-change tools — URI and CRMC’s STORMTOOLS, Beach SAMP, and Ocean SAMP are prime examples — but that doesn’t mean these tools are being used locally when difficult decisions are required.
What Rhode Island’s elected officials seem to be good at is prolonging the study of climate change without having to take any substantive action.
The volumes of taxpayer-funded reports and studies related to climate change — the unofficial ecoRI News count is 21 since 2004 — and Rhode Island’s alphabet soup of climate-related acts, commissions, councils, committees, and online tools makes your head spin with polar-vortex intensity. Finding out which recommendations have been adopted or funded, which laws are being enforced, which tools are being used, and which acronyms are still meeting would require a SWAT team with a subpoena.
“Since about 2002 one commission after another has been regurgitating the same information,” URI professor Nightingale said. “They keep repeating the same threats. They’ve done nothing to address climate change.”
Nightingale, an active member of Fossil Free Rhode Island and Nature’s Trust Rhode Island, recently told ecoRI News that the recommendations noted in the state’s collection of climate-related reports, bills, executive orders, and commissions always contain the caveat “if funds are available.”
“There are escape clauses everywhere,” he said. “What we’re doing is pushing the problem into the future.”
In 2010 the General Assembly created the RICCC (Rhode Island Climate Change Commission) by passing The Rhode Island Climate Risk Reduction Act of 2010. The 28-member commission included legislators, municipal government officials, environmentalists, representatives from business and higher education, a real-estate agent, and a medical expert. It was tasked with studying the projected impacts of climate change and identify adaptation strategies that would increase economic and ecosystem sustainability.
Two years later, the RICCC released a report titled Adapting to Climate Change in the Ocean State: A Starting Point. The 38-page report dedicated a few pages to climate-change facts and a few more to vulnerabilities and risks. The report also listed 54 recent or underway climate-change assessments, from a statewide substation flooding assessment being conducted by National Grid to community vulnerability assessments being done by the EPA.
The RICCC also proposed in its 2012 Starting Point report that in 2013 commission members would: track climate-change assessment and adaptation activities; identify legislative initiatives that support climate-change issues; convene working groups; and meet twice. Also, the RICCC’s Key Infrastructure and Built Environment Working Group would continue to identify the “risks posed by climate change to infrastructure and the built environment, as well as the most suitable climate change adaptation strategies for Rhode Island.”
In February 2014, then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee formed the EC4 (Executive Climate Change Council). The EC4 released its first report, “A Resilient Rhode Island: Being Practical About Climate Change,” that June. It was intended as a preliminary action plan to improve Rhode Island’s resilience to climate change. The EC4 has produced a similar report every year since.
Providing Resilience Education for Planning in Rhode Island (PREP-RI) was created last year by the General Assembly. Lawmakers allocated money to the URI Graduate School of Oceanography to implement actions that would increase the capacity of decision-makers to enhance local resilience to the effects of climate change, particularly sea-level rise and storm surge.
On the website O’Rourke, the state’s chief resilience officer, encouraged resiliency roundtable attendees to visit, a quote attributed to Gov. Raimondo is prominently placed:
“Rhode Island is a leader. We’re the only state with an offshore wind farm, and we’re committed to upholding the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement. By aggressively working to combat climate change and protect our coastal state from its effects, we’re creating a stronger, safer, and greener Rhode Island for future generations.”
J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University who has taken student researchers to the U.N. climate negotiations every year since 2011, is thrilled Raimondo and other governors are standing up to President Trump’s attempts to roll back environmental protections. He recently told ecoRI News he’s glad Rhode Island’s governor is committed to the Paris climate accord, but he has questions.
“She needs to clarify what it means to respect the Paris Agreement,” Roberts said. “Her plan to boost renewable energy 1,000 megawatts by 2020 (a 10-fold increase) is very ambitious. That’s great, but it’s just a goal. It’s not enforceable.”
Among the “Climate Change Success Stories” noted on climatechange.ri.gov is a photo of Raimondo signing the executive order “reaffirming Rhode Island’s commitment to the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement.”
The other six success stories include: a link to the 2017 State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report; a link to a 10-minute video titled “Rhode Island’s Changing Climate: Building Resilience Through Local Solutions;” a link to Solarize Rhode Island; a picture of the Block Island Wind Farm; a link to the Rhode Island Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP); and another photo of Raimondo signing another executive order, this one the Action Plan to Stand Up to Climate Change — the report O’Rourke and the EC4 need to deliver by this summer.
That last success is another order Roberts said requires explanation. The press release touting the executive order features glowing quotes from Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon White, Congressmen Jim Langevin and David Cicilline, and DEM’s Coit. Raimondo’s quote proclaims, “This Executive Order will ensure that Rhode Island is prepared to keep both our citizens and our 400 miles of coastline safe as we grapple with the effects of climate change.”
Roberts said press conferences and executive orders are useful tools in preparing for climate adaptation. He noted, however, that being the first state to implement a carbon tax — “setting a fair price for carbon” — would go a long way in making Rhode Island the climate leader Raimondo says she wants it to be.
He called the Narragansett Bay Commission’s three wind turbines that generate about 40 percent of its Field’s Point wastewater treatment facility’s energy needs and the commission’s use of anaerobic digestion to help power its Bucklin Point wastewater treatment facility “bold initiatives” produced by “great leadership.”
Roberts said the Biggest Little State, with the country’s first offshore wind farm, none of its own fossil fuels, and some serious climate-change vulnerability, is primed to take a national lead in addressing the challenges posed by a changing climate.
“There’s huge benefits if we take the lead,” Roberts said. “We can retool the economy and have cleaner air. There would be a substantial emissions reduction, and most people would come out ahead.”
Both Roberts and Regunberg are part of the Energize Rhode Island Coalition, a broad group of Rhode Islanders who have spent the past few years working to pass a carbon-pricing bill. The group will try again during the 2018 General Assembly session.
The bill would create a Clean Energy and Jobs Fund, paid for by a fee on fossil-fuel polluters. The fund would invest in cleaner renewable-energy projects and protect consumers from rising energy costs. Bill supporters say carbon pricing is a market-based solution to greenhouse-gas pollution that will lower emissions and energize the economy.
The governor said last March that she backs a carbon tax as long as other states in the region follow suit.
The effort needed to become the, or even a, leader in climate resiliency requires more than signing executive orders and crafting flowery press releases; lauding the state’s respected energy-efficiency initiatives; spending voter-approved, green-bond money to buy pockets of open space; and pointing to the five turbines off Block Island.
“We should be pursuing a bold climate agenda,” said Regunberg, a 2018 candidate for lieutenant governor. “We’re so dependent on out-of-state fossil fuels that we have no control when it comes to pricing. Renewable energy is a viable industry. We would have energy security if we built our own energy industry. We’re not going to get there if we continue to invest in dinosaur technology.”
Roberts said Rhode Island could produce more than enough electricity from wind, solar, and tidal power. To do that, he said the state needs better connections to backup supplies and needs to get busy developing electricity storage.
He noted that the state is involved in several regional initiatives, such as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, to lower climate emissions, and has a number of good climate-related programs in place, such as the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. He added, however, that many of these initiatives aren’t sufficiently funded.
“Six million dollars per year into the bank isn’t enough to build one energy-efficient elementary school,” Roberts said. “The talk needs to be backed up with bold efforts that are properly funded. To be a real national leader on climate-change action you need to take bold action.”
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