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Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Rhode Island’s New Chief Resiliency Officer Being Set Up to Fail

Second time around 

By Frank Carini / ecoRI News columnist

Shaun O'Rourke (Motif magazine)
The spring announcement was merely an interdepartmental reshuffle of a position asked to perform a miracle. To make it look like his administration is taking the climate crisis seriously, Gov. Dan McKee moved the person largely responsible for coordinating Rhode Island’s response to the climate crisis from a cubicle at the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank to one at the state Department of Environmental Management.

McKee announced May 22 via an executive order and a press release that he was “re-establishing the position of a Rhode Island Chief Resilience Officer” and tasking it with “developing and leading the implementation of the State’s comprehensive climate preparedness strategy.”

I thought we already did that five years ago.

Shortly after he was named Rhode Island’s first chief resiliency officer, in mid-September 2017, Shaun O’Rourke, who was already handling other tasks, including stormwater management, for the Infrastructure Bank, was handed a monumental task by then-Gov. Gina Raimondo: write a state resiliency plan to deal with the climate crisis by July 1, 2018.

The Resilient Rhody strategy — it kind of reads like a forced tribute to former Gov. Gina Raimondo (“Under the leadership of Governor Gina M. Raimondo …,” “To accelerate actions and investments, Governor Raimondo …,” and “Resilient Rhody was developed under the leadership of Governor Raimondo …”) — focused the state’s “attention on catalytic climate resilience actions both within government and together with business, academic, and nonprofit partners. 

Building on the climate leadership of state government, municipalities, and organizations, it leverages existing studies and reports to identify critical actions that move from planning to implementation. Action today will create a stronger and safer tomorrow.”

Five years later, McKee has repackaged the job and called it progress. The only movement forward was moving the position to DEM, where it belonged in the first place — no offensive to O’Rourke, who did an outstanding job putting the Resilient Rhody plan in place in less than a year, or to the fine work being done by the Infrastructure Bank. (O’Rourke has since moved out of the state.)

The new job was posted a few weeks ago. It’s actually titled “chief program development,” and the position is buried in DEM’s Bureau of Natural Resources. The annual salary of $82,124 to $93,096, while certainly nothing to scoff at (and more than I have ever been paid in my journalism career), makes the job a mid-level program director position, with no staff or funding.

The way the position’s responsibilities are listed makes it seem like the job isn’t totally focused on climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. At the top of the job posting is a list of examples of work to be performed, including planning, program development, and research for the various programs of the department and acting as a liaison between the director and his division heads in coordinating all planning and programs and to assist in developing their ideas for new programs. 

At the bottom of the job posting, under a “Supplemental Information” header, is this nugget: “This position will functionally serve as the Rhode Island Chief Resilience Officer.”

The deputy chief for DEM’s Division of Enforcement, also within the Bureau of Natural Resources, is also open and has an annual salary of $94,590 to $107,285.

The chief resilience officer/chief program development will advise the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), will work directly with the Coastal Resources Management Council and the Infrastructure Bank on the implementation of the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience Fund, work closely with multiple programs and organizations to protect and restore coastal habitats, and will coordinate efforts across municipalities, businesses, and state agencies, according to the governor’s spring press release.

If the position requires the person work with Rhode Island Department of Transportation director Peter Alviti to reduce transportation-sector emissions and create non-vehicle infrastructure, the annual salary needs to be higher.

The governor is looking for someone to shoulder an enormous amount of responsibility, but is only willing to pay a good middle management salary. It’s a lowball offer. The position, as currently structured, doesn’t have the clout and resources to get the attention of state agency department heads and powerful businesses. 

The position needs to be housed in the director’s office, by a person with considerable experience and sway. That salary likely won’t entice a person with that skill set.

None of this is surprising. O’Rourke, while also handling other responsibilities, had to quickly cobble together a climate plan to help Raimondo in her career aspirations. DEM has been understaffed and underfunded for decades. The Statehouse has long given short shrift to climate action.

Nearly a decade ago, the General Assembly passed and then-Gov. Lincoln Chafee signed the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act into law. It was touted by lawmakers as the state’s path to fortifying the Ocean State against climate change. There was plenty of self-congratulatory backslapping in the Statehouse, but the act was essentially useless. It created the unfunded and unstaffed EC4 — a collection of department heads tasked with addressing the climate crisis in Rhode Island.

The EC4 was charged with developing and tracking the implementation of a plan to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions below 1990 levels of: 10% by 2020; 45% by 2035; and 80% by 2050. Since the act didn’t mandate these targets be met, little changed after the signing-ceremony table was carried away.

In fact, the EC4’s important work remained unfunded until this year. The state’s lead entity on climate change response and resilience received $1.5 million in the fiscal 2024 budget. It also has one staff member, from DEM, to help the council tackle the climate crisis.

Seven wasted years later it finally dawned on state lawmakers that the Resilient Rhode Island Act was a toothless piece of legislation. They kind of rectified that by passing the 2021 Act on Climate law, which tightened emission targets and made them mandatory — if someone outside of government takes the state to court.

McKee’s budgetary allocation for the chief resilience officer and the position’s placement within DEM’s organizational chart lay bare the ongoing unseriousness of the governor’s office and the General Assembly to address the climate emergency with any urgency. It’s all about putting on a show for reelection or to gain a more prestigious position in public office, rather than actually addressing a problem spiraling out of control.

While those with corner offices in the Statehouse like to play up Rhode Island’s response to the climate crisis — “We are a leader in taking action and meeting the ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals laid out in the landmark Act on Climate, which I was proud to sign more than two years ago,” McKee said in the May 22 press release; Raimondo wrote in the Resilient Rhody introduction that “Rhode Island is a leader in climate action” — reality tells a different story.

Rhode Island is a lot of press release bravado, unenforced/unsupported laws, and ignored studies when it comes doing its fair share to mitigate the climate crisis.

The Rhode Island 2022 Climate Update published by the EC4 in December showed the state is falling short of its emissions mandate in the Act on Climate. The 106-page report stated Rhode Island is on track to reduce emissions 41% by 2030, below the law’s 45% requirement.

Resilience and adaptation are certainly vital aspects of addressing the climate crisis, but mitigation is the key to lowering the state’s carbon footprint. The transportation sector accounts for the largest share of Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions, at nearly 40%, so reducing gasoline and diesel pollution should be at the forefront of the state’s climate efforts.

It’s not. RIDOT is led by a bully who doesn’t believe climate change is a problem worth his agency’s time — he’s too focused on widening highways and threatening pedestrian and bicycle projects.

Despite eight years of showing nothing but contempt for non-car modes of transit, the Senate, in early March, overwhelmingly reappointed Alviti as RIDOT director. The state’s top elected officials then made him the chair of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority board of directors.

It’s obvious that state leaders still aren’t serious about the climate crisis. The person who fills the chief resilience officer/chief program development position is set up to fail.

Frank Carini can be reached at His opinions don’t reflect those of ecoRI News.