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Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Environmental Council of Rhode Island outlines their legislative priorities for 2024

"We know that the effects of climate change and other environmental problems are not borne equally. Low-income communities... bear the disproportionate burdens of pollution..." 


“Let me tell you something,” said Rhode Island's Speaker of the House Joseph Shekarchi to the crowd packed into the Rhode Island State House Library for the Environmental Council of Rhode Island’s (ECRI) Coffee Hour on Thursday. “If anybody thinks that the Act on Climate was an easy bill to pass now, it wasn't.

“We were on the floor and it was one of the first big pieces of legislation I did as Speaker. We were all under masks, we were at the auditorium, and we were all separate. It was a foreign environment and we were on iPads and the iPads were running out of energy. It's a true story - we had a three-hour battery life with the iPads and we had five or 10 minutes to go and the Republicans - no disrespect to any of them who are here, I don't think there are any, but that's okay - they were filibustering because it was the day before the break and they wanted to go on break. They were trying to build up opposition among the different advocacy groups against it.

“I called a recess and I called [Majority Leader] Chris Blazejewski up and I asked, ‘Leader, what are we going to do?’ He said, ‘We're going to call the question.’

“What that means is we end debate - and we never like to do that. But that issue and the environment were so important that we made the decision, even as a new Speaker and a new Leader - he wasn't the Leader before and I was never the Speaker before - but we wanted this to happen. It meant so much to so many people [and] it was the right thing to do.

“We called the question - and we've never called the question since then [even though] we've had some far out there debates - but we let that process play on. We wanted [Act on Climate to pass.] It was important for the state and it's important for the future of generations of Rhode Islanders. I'm proud of that day and I'm proud of that moment and I want to acknowledge Chris Blazejewski for that because not many people know the intricacies of making the sausage, but he made it happen and it doesn't happen without his guidance.

“Rhode Island is leading the way on environmental initiatives and advocates are calling this some of the best years of environmental policymaking in Rhode Island history. The people who are here today have been tremendous advocates for the environment. The Act on Climate passed in 2021 requires the state to create a plan to reduce emissions to levels that will help us avoid the worst consequence of rising temperatures and sea levels. And let me tell you, I live in Warwick and I see sea levels. Warwick has more coastline than any other city or town in the state of Rhode Island.

“Act on Climate is a national model for protecting the environment, addressing climate change, and creating new, good-paying green jobs in Rhode Island.”

ECRI's Coffee Hour is an event held every year to give environmental advocates and legislators a chance to interact, celebrate wins from last year, and discuss emerging priorities for this year's session. “It's an opportunity for our advocates to work with legislators as well as for our legislators to hear a bit about some of Rhode Island's most pressing environmental issues and the solutions that Rhode Island's environmental community is advocating for,” said Amanda Barker, who emceed the event. Barker is Vice President of Policy at the Environmental Council of Rhode Island and a Policy Advocate at Green Energy Consumers Alliance.

“ECRI is a coalition of more than 60 small, medium, and large organizations as well as individual members that chair a mission to develop and advocate for policies and laws that protect and enhance the environment for all,” said James Crowley, an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation currently serving as the president of ECRI. 

“Rhode Islanders. ECRI is the organization through which Rhode Island's environmental advocates come together to speak with one voice, and that includes voting on and advocating for our collective legislative priorities each year. In recent years, ECRI and our members have played a key role in supporting the passage of several major pieces of environmental legislation, including the Act on Climate in 2021 and the one hundred percent renewable energy standard in 2022.

“In last year's legislative session, we prioritized and successfully worked to support the passage of important legislation including solar siting reform and updates to the State Building Code,” continued Crowley. “I'll also mention that ECRI is currently working to implement our equity-based strategic plan, which includes ongoing work to amend our bylaws and orient ourselves to better support environmental justice work.”

“This is the time of the session when we have a lot of competing events going on,” said Senator Alana DiMario. “Across the hall right now is the RIght from the Start campaign, and they are talking about their priority legislation to get the children of Rhode Island off to the best and most healthy possible start in life... We [seem to] have things competing for our attention, but... the reality is that these priorities are not so much competing as they are complimentary. I think one of our biggest priorities this year on the environmental front is being able to pass the Environmental Justice Act.

“The conversation happening across the hall is to make sure that we have healthcare coverage, continuously, for children from age zero to six to help them with chronic conditions such as asthma, which we know happens more in communities that are overburdened by pollution, which the Environmental Justice Act would help us to be able to address. I want to call attention to the fact that as we advocate for our environmental priorities this year, we want to make sure to be looking around and connecting with the ways that those priorities are very much in line with the priorities around children's health. As we're looking at issues of coastal resiliency and the damage that our communities - I represent a coastal community in Narragansett, North Kingstown, and New Shoreham - the devastation that the storms that we just had a couple of weeks ago - we're still trying to and figure out what the path forward there is when we're talking about environmental issues related to resiliency and coastal resiliency.

“Those things are very much connected with the strength of our economy here in Rhode Island, and we have to be paying attention to that as we're advocating for these changes. So again, as we're torn in a lot of different directions, I want to challenge us all to look at these things as not being competing priorities, but as being ways that we can join with each other and figure out how we can move these things forward for the health and future of all Rhode Islanders.”

“It'll come as no surprise that several of our emerging priorities have to do with achieving our Act on Climate goals,” said Amanda Barker as she ran down ECRI’s legislative priorities. “The passage of the Act on Climate three years ago was a major achievement, and we thank the General Assembly for passing that act. With that being said, the act on climate is not self-executing.

“The state must now follow up with the programs and policies necessary to achieve those emissions reduction targets. Thankfully, we know what we need to do to decarbonize these sectors and achieve those targets. We just need to implement the policies to get us there. That is why the top priority area - number one - is decarbonizing buildings. Currently, Rhode Island lacks a comprehensive policy to address emissions from the building sector, which make up almost a third of the state's greenhouse gas emissions. That's why ECRI will be advocating for legislation to reduce emissions for both existing buildings and new construction.

“I want to stress that existing buildings are the larger piece of the puzzle. When we talk about achieving net zero by 2050, 70% of our building stock that is already in place today will still be in place in 2050, so we must start retrofitting and electrifying those buildings.

“Our second priority area is funding transportation Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state of Rhode Island, and a key way to reduce those emissions is to reduce vehicle miles traveled and get people out of their personally owned vehicles. RIPTA must be adequately funded to not only prevent the fiscal cliff and service cuts but also to increase driver pay and to allow them to start implementing the Transit Master Plan and expand service to create a more robust public transit system and reduce emissions.

“Our third priority area is environmental justice. We know that the effects of climate change and other environmental problems are not borne equally. Low-income communities, particularly communities of color, bear the disproportionate burdens of pollution. A major cause of that is the fact that those communities have not been heard when it comes to environmental planning. ECRI will be supporting legislation that ensures that environmental justice is considered when state agencies make important decisions around the implementation of the Act on Climate and other topics.

“ECRI will also be supporting a Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) to limit the economic burden of utility bills on already overburdened communities.

“Our fourth priority area is funding climate action. We're calling on both the General Assembly and the Governor's administration to make sure that environmental and climate action is appropriately funded and to ensure that they're not leaving any federal funding on the table. That will help establish the programs necessary to achieve the act on climate.”

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