PROVIDENCE — In Rhode Island, the political climate for climate change legislation is changing rapidly as newly elected progressives or soon-to-be elevated Democrats make themselves heard in the General Assembly.
The change became clear during last week’s Senate Democratic caucus when Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey outlined priorities for the coming legislative session, saying, “There is no greater threat to our coastal state than climate change.”
McCaffrey called for passage of the Economic and Climate Resilience Act, which would establish a fee on companies that sell fossil fuels in Rhode Island. That money would be used for climate resilience, renewable energy, and energy efficiency projects as well as “dividends” paid to residents and businesses in the state.
“As a senator from Warwick, the community that stands to be the most impacted by sea level rise, I appreciate that we need to act aggressively to protect our coastline and keep Rhode Island beautiful for future generations,” McCaffrey said. “The carbon fee and dividend legislation has been worked on extensively and improved over the past several years.”
House Majority Leader K. Joseph Shekarchi — a fellow Warwick Democrat who just locked up the support needed to succeed Nicholas A. Mattiello as house speaker — said he has not reviewed that specific piece of legislation. But, he said, “I am very concerned about the climate and climate change.”
Shekarchi noted he was a member of the Coastal Resources Management Council, a state regulatory agency, and Save the Bay, the state’s largest environmental group.
“Our biggest asset as a state is Narragansett Bay,” he said. “We need to make sure it is protected and preserved for generations to come.”
In January, Mattiello took part in a Boston Globe panel discussion, and when asked about another piece of climate change legislation, he said, “There is nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that is real or impactful. That has to be done at the national level and an international level.”
At the time, the Environment Council of Rhode Island expressed “deep disappointment” in Mattiello’s comment.
On Wednesday, Shekarchi said he believes the state can take actions that will have an impact on climate change.
For one thing, Rhode Island needs to continue growing an offshore wind industry that is leading the nation, Shekarchi said. And, he said, “I think solar energy is a viable option today. I think there is a place for solar to grow in Rhode Island in a responsible way, with local neighborhood input, that benefits both the environment and the economy.”
Also, Shekarchi said, “There are things we can do regarding plastic bags and plastic straws.”
The Senate has previously voted for a statewide ban on plastic bags, but the proposal has not passed the House. Shekarchi said he was not committing to supporting that specific legislation, but he said it would be considered in the upcoming legislative session.
Shekarchi — whose private law office focuses on zoning and land use permitting, representing developers, renewable energy companies, and other clients — said the state also can take action to preserve open space. “I think you can have responsible development and protect the environment,” he said.
In addition, he said he agrees with the need to improve state parks, and he thinks that Department of Environmental Management director Janet L. Coit “does a phenomenal job.”
The Environment Council of Rhode Island, a coalition of 60 environmental groups and individuals, issues a “Green Report Card” every two years, evaluating state legislators and the administration on environmental issues. But state leaders did so little during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions that the group gave them “incompletes” rather than letter grades.
“During two years in which the need for action was clearer than ever, both the administration and the General Assembly failed to take concrete steps toward environmental protection and climate justice in Rhode Island,” the Environment Council stated.
But on Wednesday, Priscilla De La Cruz, Environment Council president, said environmentalists are encouraged by a recent Globe report on a poll that found Rhode Islanders consider climate change to be one of the two most important problems facing the nation (along with the coronavirus).
And, she said, environmentalists are encouraged by what they are hearing from legislative leaders now that Mattiello, a conservative Cranston Democrat, has lost and “a progressive wave of newly elected officials is coming into the State House.”
De La Cruz noted the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but now she would like those targets to become binding.
“We want to make sure Rhode Island is in position to really address the climate crisis,” she said. “Rather than thinking there’s nothing we can do because we’re too small, we can actually be a model for the rest of New England and the nation.”
Christopher “Topher” Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save the Bay, said the chances for passing “meaningful” environmental legislation are going up in Rhode Island.
“It was heartening to see Senate leadership signaling their intention to act on climate change,” he said. “It is very much a different message that we are getting from Smith Hill. And it is welcome.”
Hamblett said Save the Bay supports the proposed Ocean State Climate and Resilience Fund (OSCAR), which would fund projects to improve the climate resilience of vulnerable coastal habitats and river floodplains. The money would come in part from a fee of 5 cents per barrel on petroleum products, and it would fund projects such as moving parking lots away from eroding shorelines and planting dune grass to stabilize the shore, he said.
“We are losing so much shoreline as sea levels rise,” Hamblett said. “We need the world to do something about climate change, and Rhode Island needs to step up its efforts.”
Brown University professor J. Timmons Roberts, part of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, said he and Brown students have provided technical support for the proposed carbon pricing legislation since 2015, and he is encouraged by what he is hearing from state legislative leaders.
“This year could be the year for ambitious climate action, whether this bill or a broader package,” he said.
Roberts said groups such as Climate Action Rhode Island, Sunrise Providence, and the Rhode Island Political Cooperative have focused attention on the need for state action on climate change.
“This is a very interesting moment for climate change and environmental action in Rhode Island,” he said. “I think a lot of changes have happened in the consciousness of the population about how vulnerable we are and how fast the climate is changing.”