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Labor and environmental coalition calls for R.I. to transition to a clean energy economy

A report by Cornell University researchers details crises involving climate change, the pandemic, and inequality, recommends major public projects involving wind energy, schools, and electrical grid

Cover of Climate Jobs Rhode Island coalition report by Cornell University researchersHandout

PROVIDENCE — In a new report, the Climate Jobs Rhode Island coalition and Cornell University researchers say Rhode Island is now facing three crises involving the climate, the pandemic, and inequality.

And the state could address all three crises at once by transitioning to a clean energy economy, according to the report, which calls for creating 1,300 megawatts of offshore wind energy, “decarbonizing” all K-12 schools by 2030, building 35,000 affordable “net zero” housing units by 2035, and modernizing the state’s electrical grid, among other things.

To pay for those big-ticket projects, the report suggests tapping a variety of federal funds, including the federal infrastructure bill, and it lays out a range of tax proposals, including a gas tax increase or a potential tax on the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere.

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Climate Jobs Rhode Island is a coalition of labor unions and environmental groups that has been calling for state officials to spend federal and state funds to “decarbonize” public school buildings by shifting them from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

“This science-backed report lays out how Rhode Island can take bold climate action that creates family-sustaining union jobs right in our communities, starting with front-line and environmental justice communities who are overburden by pollution,” said Priscilla De La Cruz, senior director of government affairs at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island.

Sheila Dormody, Rhode Island director of climate and cities programs at The Nature Conservancy, noted the General Assembly last year passed the Act on Climate, which which makes the state’s goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable.

“Rhode Island now needs an action plan to reduce climate pollution and build an equitable, pro-worker, healthy economy,” said Dormody, who chairs the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council Advisory Board. “This report is the comprehensive, science-based plan Rhode Island needs to address the climate crisis, create thousands of good union careers, and advance racial equity.”

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Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO and co-chair of Climate Jobs Rhode Island, said, “We can’t build our way out of the climate crisis with poverty-level jobs. That’s why the Rhode Island labor movement is leading the way to an equitable renewable energy economy, powered by workers in good union jobs.”

The report recommends steps such as legislation that would create a wage board to set a minimum wage for the renewable energy industry. It also calls for creating an “Office of Just Transition” and requiring labor representation on government agencies or commissions that work on climate change projects.

The 98-page report, titled “Building a Just Transition for a Resilient Future,” was written by researchers at the Worker Institute at Cornell University.

The report begins by noting that Tropical Storm Henri hit Rhode Island in August, dumping up to 8 inches of rain and cutting power to 100,000 people in the area. “The Ocean State, with 400 miles of coastline, is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and more intense, frequent tropical storms and hurricanes,” it says.

The latest United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report projects Rhode Island will see 4 to 9 feet of sea-level rise between now and 2100, the report says. Sea-level rise, shore erosion, and storm surges will damage coastal homes, public schools and buildings, roads, and bridges, it says.

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“With Rhode Island on the front lines of the climate crisis, it will take bold, ambitious action to combat climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution to the levels that science demands,” the report says.

And it says those climate change projects provide Rhode Island with a chance to also address two other crises: inequality and pandemic recovery.

Most jobs in the clean energy economy now pay low wages, the report says.

“As Rhode Island pursues strong climate action, it can address this problem and ensure new clean energy jobs are family-and-community-sustaining union jobs with a pipeline from disadvantaged communities to highly skilled, paid, on-the-job training programs that support long-term career advancement,” it says.

Rhode Island was facing “a crisis of social and economic inequality” even before the pandemic, the report says. As of 2017, Rhode Island had the highest poverty rate in New England, and in 2019, more than 30 percent of all residents made less than $30,000 per year, it says.

“The crisis of inequality in Rhode Island is particularly acute for communities of color,” the report says. The poverty rate for Black and Latino residents is three times higher than for white residents, and the median income for white residents is $71,295, compared to $41,123 for Latino residents and $37,781 for Black residents, it says.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made inequality in Rhode Island even worse, the report says.

Black and Latino workers make up the majority of low-wage, leisure, hospitality and service jobs that have been deemed “essential” during the pandemic, putting these workers at a much higher risk from COVID-19, the report says. “Raising wages for this particular set of workers is essential to building a stronger, more equitable Ocean State economy coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic,” it says.

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Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat, said he had not reviewed the new report as of Thursday. But, he said, “Speaking generally, addressing the climate crisis has been an urgent priority for us in the Senate. We believe that climate action will also lead to job creation.”

Ruggerio, a retired administrator of the New England Laborers Labor Management Coop Trust, said the Senate’s priorities for this year’s legislative session include bills requiring 100 percent of electricity sold in the state be generated from renewable sources by 2030, ensuring safe drinking water by replacing lead pipes, and helping cities and towns with climate resiliency measures.

Senator Dawn Euer, a Newport Democrat, and Senator V. Susan Sosnowski, a South Kingstown Democrat, are working on a package of climate jobs bills, which will be introduced soon, he said.


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