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‘With so much coast and so little land, R.I. is the most vulnerable state in New England’

Curt Spalding, the former EPA regional director who’s now at Brown, researches how communities can respond to climate change

H. Curtis “Curt” Spalding, professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.Peter Goldberg

Our weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island entrepreneurs who are starting businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with H. Curtis “Curt” Spalding, professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Question: What is the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, and what is your role there?

Answer: The Institute at Brown for Environmental and Society works to strengthen research and teaching associated with understanding complex socioecological challenges. By connecting faculty across Brown academic departments, IBES promotes interdisciplinary understanding of how climate change and other environmental challenges will affect lives of the most vulnerable communities throughout the world.


I help the Brown community connect to the work of governments, the private sector, and communities grounded in IBES’s interdisciplinary vision. I spend most of my time researching and working on emerging community resilience initiatives that focus on how climate change will affect everyday lives here in New England.

Q: How is your work at the institute informed by your experience as New England’s regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and your 18 years as executive director of Save The Bay?

A: My long tenure as an environmental leader gives me certain insights about how to build constituencies that move environmental work forward. Frequently, this fundamental idea is not given enough focus and attention. I try to help students understand that it is easy to neglect the absolute need for respectful and thoughtful engagement to all segments of a community.

At Save The Bay, it took many years to build the support for the investments needed to clean up the bay. At EPA, it took years to assemble the support needed to further stalled Superfund cleanups. Listening to concerns and framing outcomes in ways that will clearly strengthen communities and improve health is essential to achieving environmental goals.


Q: What are some of the innovative ways that cities in New England are responding to the disruptive effects of climate change?

A: In 2009 — the year I joined the Obama administration — very few communities in New England were moving forward on climate adaptation, so the current scope and pace of work is impressive.

The development and use of sea level rise modeling and visualization tools gives cities a view of the future. Deployment of stormwater-flow sensors that are connected to the Internet gives cities the data needed to immediately address local flooding concerns, as does the expansive use of green infrastructure that works to infiltrate water into the ground before excessive water volume overtaxes collection systems.

These innovations give communities much more affordable options to address flooding problems now and in the future.

Q: What is the most significant piece of legislation that the Rhode Island General Assembly could pass this year to help the state deal with climate change?

A: The Act on Climate Bill (House bill 7399, Senate bill 2165). Reducing carbon emissions must be mandatory and enforceable as it is in our neighboring states. To limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius, we must decarbonize by 2050. With so much coast and so little land, Rhode Island is the most vulnerable state in New England.


A couple of weeks ago, I asked an ocean scientist here at Brown what he thinks will happen with sea level rise. With the usual qualifications about what we do not know about melting polar ice, he said that sea level rise should stabilize by 2100 if we limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Current models suggest that means Rhode Island will have to adapt to at least six feet of sea level rise by 2100.

To every coastal community, every inch matters. That is why the Act on Climate Bill must pass here and legislation like it must pass all over the world. Rhode Island’s survival depends on it.

Q: What is the Providence Resilience Partnership and what is your role in it?

A: The Providence Resilience Partnership is a developing initiative that grew out of the 2019 Providence Business and Civic Leader Resilience Forum. Over the last 12 months, leaders representing Providence commercial property owners, universities, businesses, and other organizations that constitute a significant part of the Providence civic community met several times to learn more about how cities are building resilience in the face of disruptive climate change. Special attention is on the work of the Green Ribbon Commission in Boston.

Along with Pam Rubinoff from the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island and Barnaby Evans from WaterFire, I am facilitating the development of a work plan to promote broad community engagement and the development of a bottom-up resilience-building strategy in Providence.


Q: What communities in Rhode Island are leading the way in preparing for climate change?

A: That is hard to say because I have not spent the time necessary to dive deeply into the work of every community. Certainly, the communities that participated in the first round of the Rhode Island Municipal Resilience Program stepped out in front of the other communities. The communities impacted by Hurricane Sandy already spent a considerable amount of federal dollars to reduce risks. Moreover, I just heard that nine more communities signed up for the next round of the Municipal Resilience Program.

No community knows all there is to know about building resilience. It is important that every community shares their experience in all aspects of the work so there is continuous learning and growing confidence that Rhode Island communities can take action to reduce vulnerability and secure a prosperous future.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at Follow him @FitzProv.