PROVIDENCE — After more than four hours of debate, the state House of Representatives voted 53 to 22 on Tuesday to pass the “Act on Climate” bill, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.
The Senate has already approved a companion bill by a vote of 33 to 4, but each chamber must pass the other’s version before attention turns to whether Governor Daniel J. McKee will sign the legislation, which updates state carbon-reduction goals set in 2014 and provides an enforcement mechanism.
“Fighting climate change is the challenge of our time,” House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski said. “To ensure a safe and healthy future for all of us, and our children and grandchildren, we must embrace our shared responsibility to reduce emissions and bring greater accountability, urgency, and equity to governmental action on climate.”
Blazejewski, a Providence Democrat, emphasized that the last seven years have been the warmest in recorded history, causing ice caps to melt and sea levels to rise.
“Rhode Island is the smallest state and the Ocean State, with 400 miles of coastline, and it is particularly prone to the dangerous impacts of climate change,” he said. “Rhode Island is warming faster than any of the lower 48 states.”
But a group of Republican lawmakers and some Democrats opposed the legislation, emphasizing that it would give power to unelected state officials.
“It’s clear that this bill sets up a process whereby businesses, municipalities, and individuals will be regulated in a vast area of daily activities,” said House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican. “I cannot accept what this bill does, and that is a massive delegation of our legislative authority to a body of unelected bureaucrats.”
Deputy House Speaker Charlene M. Lima, a Cranston Democrat, raised similar objections, saying, “This is a total abrogation of legislative responsibilities we were elected to fulfill.”
The bill 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. And it calls for the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, consisting of officials from a variety of state agencies, to come up with a plan to hit those targets.
“Think of this as the PUC on steroids,” Lima said, referring to the Public Utilities Commission, suggesting citizen concerns would “fall on deaf ears.”
The House rejected a proposed amendment that would have required legislators to vote on any plan adopted by the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council before it is carried out by state agencies.
House Majority Katherine S. Kazarian, an East Providence Democrat, said the legislature regularly passes laws that require state agencies to create plans and enact regulations. “We are not abdicating any responsibility,” she said. “If anything comes up, we jump in.”
Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat, said communities such as Pawtucket, Central Falls, Providence, and Woonsocket will benefit from the bill. “Climate change does not affect just coastal communities – it affects all of our Rhode Island communities,” she said.
But Representative Patricia L. Morgan, a West Warwick Republican, contended that, “What we are doing will fall on the working poor hardest of all – the ones who pay the rents, the ones who pay the electric bill, the ones who will have to change their furnaces and their cars.”
Morgan said she is concerned that “some faceless bureaucrats are going to make regulations and force people, with a carrot or a stick, to put electric heat in their homes and to buy electric vehicles because that is the only way we can meet the aggressive goals set out in this bill.”
Advocates contended that nothing in the bill requires homeowners to install electric heat in their homes or to buy electric cars.
Representative Teresa Tanzi, a South Kingstown Democrat, said she was “disheartened to hear all the misinformation.” She said Rhode Island would reach the greenhouse gas emission goals by “tried and true” methods such as using renewable energy sources like offshore wind projects and solar power, and it could purchase renewable energy credits.
The House debated the bill and batted down a series of proposed amendments over the course of four hours. At one point, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi announced that the House might put off a final vote until Thursday because legislators’ iPads were running low on power. But the House pushed ahead with Blazejewski moving to call a final vote.
In final arguments, Filippi said the debate was not about climate change or polls showing that people want action on climate change.
“It’s about whose responsibility it is,” he said. “The responsibility is ours. We are punting. It’s a copout. People in this body are afraid because they know that the plan that is going to be presented by ECCC will be so expensive and draconian, they know this body would never vote for it.”
But Representative Lauren Carson, the Newport Democrat who introduced the bill, said Rhode Island needs to adopt a plan to qualify for federal support and funding. She said states such as Massachusetts are far ahead in developing plans and meeting goals for addressing climate change.
“There is a new economy coming,” Carson said. “There will be new jobs and business. This bill begins to position Rhode Island to be at the front of that kind of economy. I don’t think we can afford to not do something on climate change.”
So will the governor sign the bill if it comes to his desk? On Tuesday night, McKee’s spokeswoman, Andrea Palagi, said, “The governor looks forward to reviewing the legislation.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.