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Brown climate researcher warns of rising seas, flooding in R.I.

In the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, a professor who was a lead author of new UN climate change report outlines the trade-offs the state faces in protecting its coastline

Brown University professor Baylor Fox-Kemper speaks to Boston Globe reporter Brian Amaral during the recording of a Rhode Island Report podcast.
Brown University professor Baylor Fox-Kemper speaks to Boston Globe reporter Brian Amaral during the recording of a Rhode Island Report podcast.Carlos Muñoz

PROVIDENCE — As the Ocean State, with nearly 400 miles of coastline, Rhode Island will face not only rising sea levels but also more frequent flooding in the years ahead, a Brown University climate researcher said on the Rhode Island Report podcast.

That means the small state will need to make some big decisions about how to protect its coastline and which aspects of shore life it wants to defend, said Baylor Fox-Kemper, one of the coordinating lead authors of the new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“I think we all agree that the shoreline is one of the best parts about Rhode Island,” he said. “But then is it the structures that we’ve built on the shoreline that are the most important thing to save? Is it the public access to the shoreline that’s the most important thing to save? ... Is it the ecosystems? ... Is it the shell fishery?”

Fox-Kemper, who lives in Providence, said the state needs to begin talking about how it will balance all those different interests because there will be trade-offs.

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“It really comes down to what we value about our shorelines,” he said. “We could do things like build seawalls. But when you build seawalls, they may protect the structures behind them, but they tend to destroy the beach.”

Seawalls also tend to change the way that salt marshes work and the way that currents flow along the beach, which might make it impossible to swim or surf or sail near the shore, he said.

“So there are positive and negative consequences of the different choices you might make,” Fox-Kemper said. “This is a very complicated political set of questions and really will draw on and challenge all of our values and community structures.”

Sea levels worldwide could rise one to two feet by 2100 – “if we radically reduce our emissions from what they are now,” he said. But if those steps aren’t taken and changes in Antarctica add to the problem, sea levels might rise by as much as six feet by 2100, he said.

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In addition, Fox-Kemper said 1-in-100-year flood events could becomes annual events in most parts of the world, including Rhode Island.

So what can be done to address the problem?

“We can all take care of our own personal footprint,” Fox-Kemper said. “That’s driving less, more fuel efficient vehicles, changing the thermostat in your house, switching to solar power to drive your house, which can be done without putting panels on the roof these days.”

But personal choices only go so far, he said.

“As we might have seen from the pandemic, we took all those personal choices – we stopped going anywhere – and that was a relatively modest blip in the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Fox-Kemper said. “We need sustained efforts of that level.”

So people need to talk to government officials and their communities about what broad changes that would make a difference, he said.

“We need to be given more choices so that as a group we can move toward a much cleaner energy and transportation future,” Fox-Kemper said. “And if we can get there, that’s a big hunk toward what we need to do.”

Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below:

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Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.