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Thursday, May 7, 2020

State climate change planning council stalled

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

climate change earth GIFA new report claims the state council to address the climate crisis isn’t fulfilling its mandate. (CACRI)

The Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) reported progress, new plans, and fledgling efforts to address the climate crisis during last month’s first meeting of the year, but a new report criticizes the board’s deficiencies.

For instance, sea-level rise is a known threat to the Ocean State’s shoreline. The Coastal Resources Management Council warns of a 9 foot or higher ocean and bay by 2100, and severe changes to the state’s coastal landscape. 

But so far there has been little planning or money at the executive level to address this issue, according to the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island (CACRI) report.


Henry Walker, chairman of the EC4’s Science and Technical Advisory Board (STAB), spoke of the need for planned retreat and selective migration from low-lying coastal areas. The STAB has mostly been gathering information on coastal-area vulnerabilities and policy options.

“It’s a very challenging topic,” Walker said during the council’s April 24 virtual meeting. “There is a need to consider natural features, such as wetlands, barrier islands, in addition to private-sector assets. And many of these decisions involve very difficult trade-off decisions.”

Barrier islands migrate inland as sea levels rise, Walker said, “but buildings on them don’t.”

Beaches disappear as the shore is hardened with artificial structures, Walker said, setting up conflicts between short- and long-term solutions.

“Things that might be affordable in the short-term aren't defendable in the long-term,” he said.

Walker, a biological oceanographer and statistician with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), noted that Rhode Island can learn from New Hampshire, which is considering the use of redevelopment authorities that plan for retreat by securing upland areas. As state entities, these districts can raise money to pay for the process.

The STAB is expected to discuss policy options regarding sea-level rise, as well as its annual science report, at its May 22 meeting.

The STAB has been meeting somewhat regularly, but a second broad-based climate crisis planning board hasn’t been able to hold a quorum. EC4 chairwoman Janet Coit said Gov. Gina Raimondo has made her five selections for the 13-member EC4 Advisory Board but the House and Senate have not.

“It’s frustrating to me because we have tried to get the House and the Senate to make their appointments,” said Coit, who is the director of Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

She urged environmental organizations and the public to press House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio to make their appointments.

“The lack of a quorum is not through lack of trying by the governor and the executive branch,” Coit said.

CACRI is echoing these EC4 deficiencies, and a few more in its 24-page report. The collaborative urges the EC4 to revise its outdated emission-reduction targets. The report also criticizes the commission of agency heads for not engaging its departments to work on solutions and of being stuck in a “bubble of state agency group-think.” 

A paid staff should be coordinating the state’s climate crisis response, according to CACRI. The STAB and current science should drive more of the state’s decision-making when it comes to the climate crisis, according to the group’s most-recent analysis.

“The EC4 needs attention and help; we should not take it for granted that it will be sufficiently effective as it now functions,” according to the CACRI, whose members include local environmentalists Greg Gerritt, Ken Payne, Timmons Roberts, and Paul Roselli.

During the EC4’s online meeting last month, Nicholas Ucci, acting director of the Office of Energy Resources (OER), was appointed vice chairman of the council. He noted that the economic harm caused by the global pandemic will endure after a vaccine for COVID-19 is made available. In the aftermath, he said, there will be less funding for climate-crisis projects and less consumer and business spending.

“And that creates challenges but not insurmountable ones,” Ucci said. “And now is not the time to pull back from mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions and strengthening resiliency. I think we all agree on this call that those efforts strengthen our economy, not detract from it.”

Here is a list of other issues that were addressed during the April 24 EC4 meeting:

Transportation & Climate Initiative (TCI). Despite the coronavirus crisis, Terrence Gray, DEM’s deputy director for environmental protection, and Colleen Quinn, a transportation consultant for the Raimondo administration, continue planning with TCI representatives from other states for “a bigger, green-mobility strategy,” Coit said.

Municipal Resilience Program. Five communities received technical assistance funds in 2019 for “quick, high-impact” projects that protect areas threatened by coastal flooding and erosion. Another nine projects are underway this year. The governor asked for $7 million in her budget for projects in fiscal 2021.

Carbon-pricing study. The state study is expected this summer. OER and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation are completing work on modeling for the emissions-reduction program.

Heating sector transformation. Coit and Ucci offered ideas on how to implement the rapid adoption of heat pumps in the next 20 years. The ideas included wrapping the cost of new pumps into the sale of a home, much as old cesspools are replaced with wastewater treatment systems in some areas. 

Training for installers and public education were also mentioned.

The EC4 is scheduled to meet again June 9 at 10:30 a.m.