Climate Crisis

Frontline Communities Key to Ending Racism and Dealing with Climate Crisis

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Providence’s Climate Justice Plan focuses on the Port of Providence, including the industrial waterfront along Allens Avenue, and the health burdens that the frontline communities there endure, such as high asthma rates, lead poisoning, and pollution. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

In response to national and local events regarding racism and police brutality, Rhode Island environmental groups are paying increased attention to frontline communities and issues of race and equality.

At the start of the June 9 meeting of the Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), chairwoman Janet Coit acknowledged “the pain and anger around George Floyd’s murder and so many others before that and the work that’s being done to listen, learn, and improve this nation by addressing and learning about systemic racism.”

Coit drew a connection between racism, the coronavirus pandemic, and the climate crisis.

Coit, who heads the Department of Environmental Management, said as long as she remains EC4 chair she will “make sure that we are looking at equity issues and learning from the disruption and changes during this pandemic as we approach the crisis and the long-term challenges of climate change and look to move forward in a way that’s sustainable, cleaner, where we have all communities engaged in benefiting from our work.”

A racial contrast between Rhode Island’s environmental groups and frontline communities was brought to the meeting’s fore in a presentation of Providence’s Climate Justice Plan.

Leah Bamberger, the city’s director of sustainability, and Court King, climate justice policy associate in the Office of Sustainability, spoke about the connection between the exploitation of natural resources during the Industrial Revolution, its connection to the slave trade in Rhode Island, and to the exploitation of black and brown people all over the world.

Issues such as the climate crisis, public health, and racism, they explained, are layered in society and rooted around the same exploitation.

“Rhode Island as a state is situated in this interesting place in this history,” Bamberger said. “So much of it is rooted right here in our soil, and I hope that we can be the model or the leaders that incite this change, and acknowledge this history and acknowledge the harm that has been done. And recognize and start to rectify the interconnection around race, climate change, slavery, and everything that is happening that we are seeing today.”

Bamberger noted that decisions regarding these frontline communities in Providence are largely made by an elite few of white upper-middle class people on behalf of a large majority, which isn’t white nor upper-middle class.

“That discrepancy continues to exacerbate the challenges, the discrepancies, the institutional racism that we are seeing,” she said.

To that point, Bamberger noted that one of the biggest challenges in developing the Climate Justice Plan was keeping the mostly white environmental groups on the sideline.

“For me, the hardest part was managing the usual suspects, managing the traditional white environmentalists who are, and this is not a criticism of them, they are accustomed to and wanting to show up and be heard — and they have great ideas and great thoughts,” Bamberger said. “But this was not the space for them. We were intentionally trying to create a space for our frontline communities to center their issues, their concerns, and really build that capacity.”

King noted that traditional work environments rely on a hierarchy to operate, a structure that doesn’t mesh with frontline communities.

“Community is built through resilience,” King said. “There’s always trauma. There is always an issue that communities are having to fight through. And so community work is inherently collaborative in a way that some of the spaces that we work in are not inherently collaborative.”

The Climate Justice Plan relied on input from frontline residents collected by the city’s Racial & Environmental Justice Committee. The plan’s research focused on community ownership rather than community engagement. Community ownership, Bamberger said, starts with collaborative government and collaborative partnerships.

Rather than hosting workshops and charrettes, the plan’s developers heard directly from the public through one-on-one meetings and phone interviews. And instead of seeking opinions about electric vehicles and renewable energy, they asked residents how they keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer, how they move about the city, and what they wanted to change.

Residents expressed concern about broken windows and faulty heating systems, and worried about being displaced by gentrification.

King urged listening to the interviews, called Future Stories, to hear from members of these Providence communities.

“People want to be involved,” she said. “We just have to make spaces for them to be involved.”

Both King and Bamberger noted that organizations and government offices need to offer time and money to foster community participation, such as making equity issues part of their work and paying groups to participate in field work, as Racial & Environmental Justice Committee members were paid to work on the Climate Justice Plan. Some residents interviewed for the plan were paid for their time with gift cards.

The 88-page report centers on the Port of Providence and the health burdens that frontline communities endure, such as high asthma rates and lead poisoning.

“We’re not sacrificing the urgency of climate change, we’re addressing it in a way that also improves the lives of frontline communities, which is absolutely critical to our long-term success,” Bamberger said.

Despite all of the discussion about frontline communities, the EC4 Advisory Board has no members from frontline communities. Filling the board was long overdue and Coit said recent public advocacy helped push the General Assembly to finally make its appointments. At an EC4 meeting in late April, Coit noted that Gov. Gina Raimondo made her five appointments to the Advisory Board but that the General Assembly still hadn’t nominated members to the 13-person committee.

Sheila Dormody of The Nature Conservancy will serve as chair. The Advisory Board has a broad, yet vague, mandate to evaluate and make recommendations on programs, plans, and strategies and to make recommendations “for improving public access to resources/information about climate change so as to build public support for making RI’s communities more resilient.”

Coit said the group will be critical to public engagement.

Henry Walker, a biological oceanographer and statistician with the Environmental Protection Agency, is stepping down as chair of the EC4’s Science and Technical Advisory Board (STAB). Michael Baer, managing director in charge of program and business development for the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, will replace Walker as chair.

STAB is expected to release a progress report on the state’s climate initiatives this month.

The following is a look at other issues discussed during the EC4’s June 9 meeting:

Miles less traveled
Coit noted that the coronavirus pandemic has led to a 58 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled in Rhode Island — a reduction similar to those in neighboring states. She described it as a positive trend for cleaner air and lower emissions, especially as the summer ozone season gets underway.

“If we look at cleaner transportation options, we have a really culpable sense that the air can be cleaner if we reduce emissions from transportation,” Coit said.

Carbon pricing
A state-funded study is looking at scenarios with a $6 and a $25 metric-ton fee on carbon emissions from various sectors such as transportation and heating. The $6 scenario would add about 5 cents to a gallon of gas but wouldn’t raise funds for environmental projects. The $25 scenario adds 23 cents per gallon and subsidizes low-carbon energy and transportation projects.

The renewed focus on frontline communities prompted Coit to mention that carbon pricing is often considered a regressive tax because higher fuel costs are felt most by low-income consumers.

Support for a carbon-pricing program came from a letter signed by the Acadia Center, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Clean Water Action, the Conservation Law Foundation, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, The Nature Conservancy, and the Environment Council of Rhode Island.

Raimondo has been noncommittal about supporting a fee on carbon. She is running a separate working group to study decarbonizing the transportation sector, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the state.

In December, the governor’s Mobility Innovation Working Group is expected to release an action plan containing recommendations for programs and regulatory initiatives. The report will look at transportation electrification, autonomous vehicles, transit and mobility services, economic development and innovation, and environmental justice and equitable policies.

Electric buses
Scott Avedisian, CEO of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA), announced the purchase of 15 new electric buses, which were funded through a $5 million federal grant.

The new battery-electric buses will replace 15 diesel buses. In 2018, RIPTA was awarded $1.5 million for three electric buses and related infrastructure. RIPTA is already spending money the state received from the Volkswagen emissions scandal on electric bus infrastructure. The new buses are expected to be on the road by 2022. The low-emitting vehicles are projected to eliminate more than 1,650 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. RIPTA has about 250 buses in service, 62 are hybrid gas-battery powered.

Climate resilient grants
Walker Farm in Barrington is the first of four municipal projects to begin spending its state grant for climate-change preparedness. The site in Barrington is no longer a pig farm, but a low-lying park used for boating, leaf composting, and community gardening. Nine communities have applied for a second round of funding. The Nature Conservancy is leading workshops for those communities with funds to be awarded by the end of this year.

100 percent renewable
Raimondo and the Office of Energy Resources (OER) are beginning work on a plan to achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. Whether this power will come from local sources like offshore wind and/or will be imported Canadian hydropower will be answered in the plan. Public workshops are planned to begin in January.

To join the email listserve, send contact information to energy.reources@energy.ri.gov.

Report critical of EC4
Coit said she dislikes the title Insufficient, a critique of the EC4 by the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island. But she said that the report has good content about biodiversity and national ecosystems.

“I wanted to acknowledge that input and the critique and I encourage everyone to learn from that,” Coit said.

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