PROVIDENCE — Environmental advocates are calling for Rhode Island to take urgent action following a landmark report warning that the earth’s climate is warming at a faster rate than previously thought.
Governor Daniel J. McKee heard from a panel on Thursday night during a “Rhode Island 2030 Community Conversation” event livestreamed on his Facebook page.
McKee, a Democrat, began by noting the General Assembly passed the Act on Climate, which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable. While he had raised a “serious concern” about the legislation, he ended up signing it in April after receiving assurances from Attorney General Peter F. Neronha.
“The Act on Climate positions our state to boldly address climate change and to prepare a fourth industrial revolution – the global economy which will shift to sustainable energies,” McKee said Thursday. “Rhode Island has the chance to lead the way. We are positioned as the Ocean State.”
The governor said he recently sent a letter to Cabinet members about the state budget, asking them include climate goals, among other priorities, as they prepare their fiscal year 2023 budget proposals.
“We passed historic pieces of legislation this session that will put our state on a more sustainable and prosperous path, and they should be carefully considered as agencies submit their submissions to ensure that we meet the standards set in these laws,” McKee wrote in the Aug. 6 letter. “In particular, the Act on Climate, which ensures that the state is prepared for climate change, and it creates affordable and sustainable pathways toward a net-zero climate emission future.”
Thursday’s keynote speaker was William Moomaw, a professor emeritus of international environmental policy at Tufts University who has been a lead author of five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.
Moomaw said the IPCC report released on Aug. 9 concluded that climate change is already affecting every part of the globe, contributing to weather and climate extremes. “We know what those are,” he said. “Those are the wildfires. Those are the droughts. Those are the floods. Those are the intensified hurricanes.”
The IPCC report said it was “virtually certain” that the globe’s mean sea level will continue to rise over the course of the 21st century, and that’s a big deal for a state with nearly 400 miles of coastline, he said.
“One plea I would like to make to legislators and the governor is that the goals you have set for 2030 and 2050 should be a floor under ambition and not a roof or a cap on accomplishments,” Moomaw said. “If we can do better, let’s do better.”
The good news, he said, is that a rapid shift in energy use and land use can make a difference. “We can’t increment our way,” he said. “But this is not a sacrifice. We are taking advantage of an opportunity.”
Rhode Island deserves credit for launching the first-in-the-nation offshore wind power project, and the state should build on that, Moomaw said. “It’s really quite disappointing that one one has followed your lead in this very important alternative way of generating electricity,” he said.
Moomaw suggested other initiatives, such as developing an industry around ways to adapt coastal areas to rising seas and expanding aquaculture for shellfish. “Rhode Island doesn’t have a lot of land,” he said. “But you’ve got a lot of Narragansett Bay, so you could be expanding there.”
Moomaw described Rhode Island as a “low-cost manufacturing venue” that is right next to a booming biotech and digital hub in Massachusetts, where it can be “very expensive” for startups.
“I’ll probably get a lot of flak for this from my colleagues in Massachusetts,” he said, “but you should hang out an availability sign in Rhode Island for some of these companies to come and start their business in Rhode Island.”
Also, Moomaw said he was glad to hear that Rhode Island is focused on environmental justice as it addresses climate change. “Study after study shows that polluting industries and so forth are overwhelmingly placed in low-income neighborhoods and primarily those of people of color,” he said.
April Brown, of the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, said that in discussing fossil fuels, the “elephant in the room” is the Port of Providence, which has a variety of industrial operations near low-income areas of South Providence.
“We know that it is a toxic space,” she said. “We know that we have children suffering from asthma. We know there have been accidents that have happened that have created spaces where people have gotten very sick.”
Brown said it’s good to pursue plans for electric vehicles and other strategies, but she would like to see a plan for changing the Port of Providence so it’s “no longer utilized the way it is now utilized by industry.”
Amy Moses, general counsel for Utilidata, a Providence-based energy software company, called for Rhode Island to take three steps to meet its climate goals.
“We have to get off dirty fossil fuels in favor of electricity,” she said, adding that fossil fuels now enjoy massive subsidies. “We need to bring more clean energy onto our system like solar and wind and batteries.”
Moses also called for using federal funds to digitize the electrical distribution grid. Replacing the “old, clunky” distribution grid would make it easier to add renewable energy sources and to get the lights back on after storms, she said.