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‘We must move beyond business as usual,’ says new report on Rhode Island’s inadequate response to climate change



The Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island (CACRI) has issued a “citizen evaluation” of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) and have determined that “regarding climate change mitigation and adaptation, we in Rhode Island need to move beyond business as usual, and the EC4 merits being tuned-up and empowered to contribute to this movement.”

The EC4 was established as part of the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014. The Resilient Rhode Island Act was established to reduce carbon emissions in the state to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020; 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2035 and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Unfortunately, the EC4 lacks teeth. It has no power to compel change: EC4’s role is purely advisory.

The EC4 board is made up of Rhode island State department heads under Chair Janet Coit. All of these positions are nominated by Governor Gina Raimondo.

Brown University professor Timmons Roberts provided the background and context for the report, detailing the work Rhode Island state government has dealt with climate change so far:

The report was written by Ken Payne, former Senior Policy Advisor to the Rhode Island State Senate and Director of the Rhode Island Senate Policy Office from 1997 to 2007.

“Now is the time to assess the current situation in preparation to make adjustments and amendments to our one state agency and public law that is responsible for the reduction of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions,” said Payne.

Ken Payne

The assessment finds that:

A. While assigning the EC4 specific duties, the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 neither includes a grant of powers to the EC4 to perform those duties nor provides for an allocation of resources needed to do the work;

B. While the EC4 has done an outstanding job in basic respects, several key provisions of the Resilient Rhode Island Act have not been utilized to date, and compliance with those provisions will be important going forward;

C. While the EC4 serves a vital function that needs to be continued, it is not sufficient to achieve needed progress: Enforceable targets for greenhouse gas emissions reductions are crucial and new powers of implementation need to be established in state agencies;

D. While the EC4 and its advisory boards have illuminated positive things that are happening in Rhode Island, especially within member state agencies, they have not used:

  • Executive Order 17-06, Reaffirming Rhode Island’s Commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement,
  • the provisions of Chapters 205 and 255 of the Public Laws of 2017 requiring a study of carbon pricing as means to incentivize change, and
  • using the best available science and technical information in evaluating the state’s policies and programs aimed at mitigating and adapting to climate change; and,

E. While managing natural resources presuming an essentially steady state has been effective in the past (pollution control measures and non-degradation of resources are examples), now we must manage based on the trajectory of change: Resilience-based ecosystem stewardship is needed to enable life in Rhode Island to evolve during the years ahead; achieving environmental justice, building a green economy, and stewarding ecosystem diversity are fundamental issues. The December 2016 Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan shows clearly that clinging to business as usual will not work going forward.

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“Has the Act served a useful purpose, and should it be continued? Does the Act need amendment or revision?” asked Payne. ‘2020 is the year in which we will have to evaluate whether or not we have met our first greenhouse gas emissions reduction target. Whatever the conclusion, the recent news regarding the need for emissions reductions has not been good. The need for greater emission reductions is much more pressing if we are to avoid a local economic collapse and a global cataclysm.”

The report concludes that:

The EC4 performs vital functions, in some key respects its performance is outstanding: It enables a sustained, networked response to climate change issues by state agencies. It is a common platform for issuing informative plans and reports on climate change mitigation and adaptation issues. Its website is a reactive and user-friendly and makes important Rhode Island information publicly accessible.

The two major plans on the EC4 platform, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan (December 2016) and the Resilient Rhody Actionable Vision (July 2018) are excellent in their depiction of issues and short implementation programs. Nevertheless, requisite powers need to be given to state agencies, resources need to be provided, and targets for emissions reductions need to be updated based on current science and made enforceable.

While the EC4 does many things well, there are significant areas where the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 could be more fully utilized:

  • First, findings and recommendation adopted by the EC4 should be included in its Annual Reports.
  • Second, the Annual Reports should be made on before May 1 of each year, as required: this timing means that the reports are made while the General Assembly is in session. Many of the topics covered in the Annual Reports are important to legislative decision making.
  • Third, the Science and Technical Advisory Board (STAB) should perform the evaluation function set forth RIGL § 42-6.2-5 (f)(6). It is crucial that the best available science and technical information be taken into keeping statutes current and in implementing policies and program.
  • Fourth, the Advisory Board has an important function of bringing community concerns and opportunities to the EC4; the Advisory Boards needs to be reinvigorated, either using its existing structure in a more concerted fashion or by amending its structure to provide flexibility in making it functional.

In a way, the period 2014 to present have been the easy years; the prospect ahead, to quote Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Director Janet Coit, the EC4’s chair, is sobering. To handle the work ahead fully and professionally, the EC4 will need greater capacities. To have Boards, such as the Science and Technical Advisory Board and the Advisory Board, function at a high level, professional staff support to those boards is commonly requisite. The EC4 needs to have clearly stated powers that are commensurate with its duties; included in these powers should at least be some power to undertake rule-making consistent with the Administrative Procedures Act.

There are cross-cutting issues that need to be given priority: these include environmental justice, ecosystem diversity and resilience, and green economy development. In the era which we have entered, these issues are inseparable. Intra-agency coordination is important but not sufficient. The EC4 should not be ensconced on the third floor of 235 Promenade Street, Providence, where it typically meets. Resilience-based ecosystem stewardship relies on the active involvement of diverse communities. This assessment constitutes a public call for institutional evolution, our common obligation is to be constructively responsive to the trajectory of change. We must move beyond business as usual.

Below, Timmons Roberts talks about the wider implications facing Rhode Island if we do not take climate change seriously.

Questions and answers:

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.