Advocates Told to Slow Down on Rhode Island Climate Action
March 9, 2020
The House bill bolsters the state emission-reduction targets while making them legally binding.
Supporters, who filled the House committee room and an overflow meeting room, had to wait for up to four hours for the hearing to start and get a chance to speak. The hearing was delayed by a full House update on the coronavirus. After the briefing, it was still a challenge for the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources to gather a quorum to start the hearing.
Once the witnesses had a chance to testify, they emphasized the growing volume of research that calls for more aggressive steps to reduce greenhouse gases, such as reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Kendra Anderson, past president of Climate Action Rhode Island, chided the House committee for balking at past bills that aimed to make the goals enforceable.
“We’re Rhode Islanders. We’re smart. We’re scrappy. We’re used to being small, but getting things done,” she said.
The legislation, called Act on Climate 2020, was labelled a priority bill by the Environment Council of Rhode Island, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and Save The Bay. It ratchets up the state emission-reduction goal set in 2014 from 45 percent to 50 percent by 2035 and net-zero by 2050.
Jed Thorp of Save The Bay told the committee that the climate crisis should be solved with the same approach that has successfully curtailed acid rain and leaded gas.
“Given the scale of the threat of climate change,” Thorp said, “we should treat this problem in same the way that we treated all other environment problems by putting mandatory legally enforceable limits in place.”
Business interests, such as the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, claimed that the changes would hurt profits and give too much power to the governor.
Some members of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources also downplayed the need for the bill. Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, D-Hopkinton — who in the mid-1990s led an assault to weaken the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) — immediately connected the legislation to the controversial Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI). The multi-state plan to curb vehicle emissions through a fee on wholesale fossil-fuel imports has been a rallying cry of opposition by the conservative media, delaying a positive publicity campaign governors had hoped to launch.
Kennedy wanted to know if Gov. Gina Raimondo was easing her support for TCI.
“Her support hasn’t wavered but the conversations and the design of the system is something we continue to work on,” DEM director Janet Coit said.
Kennedy and others expressed concern that making the targets enforceable would cede authority from the General Assembly to the state agencies that serve on the climate-change oversight committee, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4).
Coit noted that the climate crisis is so pressing that state agencies should have the power to see that carbon-reduction policies are followed. Coit also said that the House and Senate aren’t fulfilling their role in the legislation they passed in 2014 by failing to name members to the EC4’s citizen advisory board.
Some committee members objected to the provision allowing lawsuits against the state, which was included in the bill to ensure that emission-reduction goals are met. Bill supporters noted that the same legal requirement in the Massachusetts 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act helped environmental groups win a court case that forced the state to take steps to follow through on its emission reductions.
The March 5 proceedings took an unusual turn when vice chairman Robert Phillips, D-Woonsocket, read aloud a text — without mentioning the source — that accused the supporters in the room of driving gas-powered vehicles and relying on other fossil-fuel sources for heat and electricity.
The anonymous texter, who didn’t have to wait four hours to be heard, choose the wrong audience to accuse of hypocrisy, however, as most of the people testifying mentioned their electric vehicles, solar arrays, and/or heat pumps.
Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington, objected to the use of an unnamed text and urged that the person speak before the committee. Knight, and representatives John W. Lyle Jr., D-Lincoln, and Marcia R. Ranglin-Vassel, D-Providence, also supported the bill.
Knight, however, called the legal-enforcement provision a “recipe for disaster” that could lead to thousands of lawsuits.
The prospects for the bill are unclear. Like any bill, its fate lies with the speaker of the House rather than the committee. But committee chairs do have some influence by proposing bills for the speaker to green light.
Recently, however, environmental bills have had little success. In 2019, the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources was purged of many of its impassioned environmentalists, such as its former chair Art Handy, D-Cranston, for not voting for Nicolas Mattiello as House speaker.
For the past two sessions no meaningful environmental bill has passed the General Assembly. All previous attempts to mandate the state emissions targets, going back a decade, have failed.
One former committee member, Aaron Regunberg, testified of his struggle with the “morally acceptable” decision to start a family, knowing that the world may not be livable during the lifetime of his child.
“For the sake of your kids, yourselves, for the sake of our mental health, it would mean a lot to know that our state was stepping up to make sure that my wife and I can have children and to feel OK about that decision,” Regunberg said.
Regunberg resigned from the House in 2018 to run for lieutenant governor, but lost the race.
As is the case will all bills heard for the first time, the bill was held for further study. A Senate version of the bill hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing.