Climate Crisis

New Report Claims R.I. Climate Council Falling Behind Targets

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management doesn’t dispute report’s findings


J. Timmons Roberts, left, and Ken Payne at a press event for the release of an assessment of the Rhode Island climate council. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — As the five-year anniversary of the state climate task force nears, a new report claims the board isn’t fulfilling its objectives and that Rhode Island is falling short of meeting its climate-reduction targets.

The Resilient Rhode Island Act was signed into law by then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee in 2014. The historic legislation had big aspirations, such as reducing the state’s climate emissions by 45 percent by 2035. The board directed with meeting those goals, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), isn’t doing enough to make that happen, according to the recent report by the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island (CACRI).

Led by Ken Payne, a policy expert and former head of the Office of Energy Resources (OER), and Brown University professor J. Timmons Roberts, the CACRI analysis says the state is on the “business as usual” track for medium and long-term emission-reduction targets.

Payne, who wrote a competing bill to the Resilient Rhode Island Act, said part of the problem is that the EC4 was never given any authority to enforce the targets.

“It remained purely a coordinating council, rather than a council with teeth,” he said.

The 12-member board hasn’t received funds or staff to conduct research and other administrative tasks. 

Payne said the board has been effective at gathering information from state agencies and sharing it with the public. But the EC4 never put forward its own data and recommendations to meet goals, as required by the Resilient Rhode Island Act.

The enabling legislation requires the EC4 to oversee the twin tasks of protecting the state from worsening floods, heat, storms, and sea-level rise, known as adaptation. And slashing greenhouse-gas emissions, known as mitigation.

The Dec. 17 report calls for enacting legislation the gives the EC4 power to enforce climate mandates. Efforts to pass bills have failed, Roberts said, because of lobbying of the governor and legislators by the American Petroleum Institute, the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island, The Energy Council of Rhode Island, and the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association.

“They are at the Statehouse and OER and they are making campaign contributions and that’s important,” Roberts said.

The EC4 hasn’t addressed the state’s compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement. It hasn’t funded a report for a carbon-pricing program, also known as a carbon tax, as mandated by the General Assembly. The EC4 is also overdue in publishing its 2018 annual report, as required by state law.

The EC4’s Science & Technical Advisory Board (STAB) hasn’t delivered updates on the ever-changing assessments of climate change, nor has it met with a quorum since 2016. The STAB should also settle the controversial issue of tracking Rhode Island’s carbon emissions, as the two primary methods present opposing conclusions for tracking greenhouse gases.

Roberts, a member of the STAB, said the committee is good at explaining the scientific impacts of climate change but lacks policy experience to reach zero emissions sometime between 2035 and 2050.

State officials respond
Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and chair of the EC4, doesn’t dispute the findings of the CACRI report and agrees that Rhode Island needs to do more to address climate change, but any enforcement won’t come through the EC4.

“The Resilient R.I. Act, which established the EC4 in 2014, did not create new programs or establish new powers,” DEM spokesman Michael Healey said. “Rather, it set specific greenhouse gas-reduction targets and incorporated consideration of climate-change impacts into the powers and duties of all state agencies.”

Healey said the overdue annual report is expected in early 2019 and that the Resilient Rhody report released this summer by the EC4 and the state’s chief resiliency officer, Shaun O’Rourke, was a major achievement.

“It is important to note that the purpose of the annual report is to highlight the work of the council and its member agencies/offices during the previous year, and not to set strategic direction or new policy recommendations,” Healey said.

DEM didn’t respond to the EC4’s failure to secure funds for a study on a statewide carbon fee but touted Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent endorsement of a regional low-carbon transportation policy proposal through its membership in the Transportation and Climate Initiative of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic States.

Healey said turnover with leadership and membership has made is difficult to hold a quorum for the STAB, but that new members would be sought through the General Assembly in 2019.

Emissions accounting
The EC4 adopted the consumption model for tracking state carbon emissions, while the Division of Planning uses the production model for its emissions targets, which are enforceable.

Neither model is necessarily better and both show that Rhode Island falls short of emission-reduction goals after 2020, Payne said. But if the consumption-based model is used, it must include a broader accounting of “life cycle” emissions, such as those created in the shipping and storage of fossil fuels.

“We’ve offered this assessment as a way of looking at constructively about what needs to be done going forward and what we’d like to see done going forward.” Payne said. “And we can’t make progress unless there is a broad acceptance of the idea that we cannot continue business as usual.”

Roberts is working with Brown University students to update the EC4’s emission reduction plan created by the Stockholm Environment Institute. They are also creating a climate-change “dashboard” that tracks Rhode Island’s mitigation and adaptation targets.

“There is so much that can be done from the EC4 if they had the resources,” Roberts said. “It’s been four-and-a-half years, it may be time for some reevaluation of some large legislative proposals that could could reform this and give it real teeth.”


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