PROVIDENCE — A year ago, climate change legislation was going nowhere in the General Assembly, and the state’s most powerful lawmaker was saying Rhode Island couldn’t do anything about that issue, even if it wanted to.
“There is nothing Rhode Island can do to address climate change in a way that is real or impactful,” said then-House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello at a Globe forum. “That has to be done at the national level and an international level.”
But now the ”Act on Climate” bill, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable, is rapidly moving toward becoming law. On Tuesday, the Senate voted for it, 33 to 4. On Thursday night, the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee voted for it, 13 to 2. And it’s expected to pass the full House when it comes to the floor on Tuesday.
So what changed? Well, for one thing, Mattiello lost November’s election, and new House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi is backing the bill.
“I expect it to pass overwhelmingly,” Shekarchi said Friday. “It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s a good bill. The time has come for a floor vote.”
The Warwick Democrat said everyone needs to help find a solution to climate change.
“Every state has to do their part, every city and town, every Rhode Islander has to do their part,” Shekarchi said. “We owe it to the environment and future generations of Rhode Islanders.”
In recent years, the bill has been introduced by Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, and Blazejewski now holds the No. 2 position of House Democratic majority leader.
The “Act on Climate” bill is the top priority of Rhode Island’s environmental community, said Priscilla De La Cruz, president of the Environment Council of Rhode Island.
She said the tide has turned in favor of the legislation because of the change in House leadership, the election of progressive candidates in the Senate, and the support of labor groups such as the AFL-CIO. And she cited growing public support for action to combat climate change, particularly in Rhode Island.
“It’s super exciting. We are looking forward to the House taking it up,” De La Cruz said. “We see it as the foundation and framework we need to really reduce emissions and transition to a green economy in an equitable way.”
The bill does not spell out what changes Rhode Island will need to make to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, it sets mandatory goals for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, 80 percent below those levels by 2040, and at “net-zero emissions” by 2050.
The bill creates a Climate Change Coordinating Council, which includes officials from a range of state agencies, and requires the council to come up with a plan to hit those carbon-reduction targets.
The bill makes those targets mandatory, allowing Rhode Island residents, organizations, or the attorney general to file a lawsuit in state Superior Court to enforce provisions of the proposed law.
During Thursday night’s committee hearing, Representative Patricia L. Morgan, a West Warwick Republican, voted against the bill, calling it “enormously expensive and damaging.”
She said the legislation could end up costing homeowners $50,000 to $100,000 each by forcing them to convert to electric heat and making other changes to their homes, and she said ISO New England has not completed a study on potential impacts.
“It’s wonderful to set the goal,” Morgan said. But she called for removing the section of the bill that makes the targets enforceable. “We have to understand that once you allow someone to sue the state, it becomes mandatory,” she said.
Representative Lauren Carson, the Newport Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, said nothing in the legislation would require residents to install electric heat or spend up to $100,000.
“I really don’t want to scare our constituents because there is absolutely nothing in this bill that mandates that anyone make any renovations to their houses,” she said. “It’s just not in there.”
The state will come up with a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the public will have input into the details of that plan, Carson said. The reductions are likely to come as the state moves toward renewable energy sources and electric vehicles, she said.
Carson emphasized that Rhode Island would have 30 years to reach the “net zero” goal under the legislation. “It’s not tomorrow. It’s not in 10 years. It’s in 30 years,” she said. “I don’t even think I’ll be here in 30 years — I’ll be 97.” She said, “We are doing this for the young people.”
She said US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, the main Senate champion for addressing climate change, has told her that states need to develop plans so they can qualify for federal funding and other incentives to promote renewable energy.
“If we are left out of this in 10 years, we are going to miss the opportunity for this industry to come into this state,” Carson said. “We are going to miss the opportunity for the jobs to come into this state.”