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COMMENTARY

Rhode Island’s route to an equitable, worker-centered, green economy

The president of the AFL-CIO and the RI Director of Climate and Cities Programs for The Nature Conservancy say a new report by experts at Cornell University shows how our state leaders can seize the moment and get it done

Wind turbines near Block Island, R.I., on May 13, 2017, one of only two offshore wind farms operating in the United States.Chang W. Lee/NYT

Rhode Islanders don’t have to look far to find evidence of our crumbling infrastructure, deeply unequal economy, or the climate crisis. Luckily, we don’t have to look far for solutions anymore, either.

With a state budget surplus of $618 million and more than $2.5 billion in federal infrastructure money in our public coffers, Rhode Island is in a strong position to tackle the climate crisis, rebuild our infrastructure, and invest in an equitable economy that works for all. A new report, authored by experts at Cornell University, shows how our state leaders can seize the moment and get it done.

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This timely climate jobs report, developed in consultation with the Climate Jobs Rhode Island coalition, shows how Rhode Island could become the first fully decarbonized state in the nation by outlining a suite of science-backed policy recommendations to create good union jobs, advance racial equity, and build a vibrant and inclusive renewable economy.

Core provisions of the plan include decarbonizing the state’s K-12 public school buildings, installing 900 MW of solar energy and 1,300 MW of offshore wind energy, and modernizing the state’s electrical grid by 2030. The report also includes recommendations aimed at slashing emissions from households and municipal buildings, expanding public transportation, and facilitating a just transition for workers and communities that rely on the fossil fuel sector.

Climate Jobs Rhode Island, a coalition of unions, environmental groups, and community organizations that we helped to convene last year, is organizing around this plan. The coalition recently launched a “Green and Healthy Schools” campaign to retrofit, repair, and decarbonize Rhode Island’s aging public schools with the strongest labor and equity standards. A winning solution that will save school districts millions of dollars in energy costs, create healthier classrooms, and support union jobs right in our local communities. The idea is gaining serious political traction, too: just last month, Treasurer Seth Magaziner introduced a $300 measure school bond measure to fund carbon-free and healthy schools.

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As a climate policy professional and a labor leader representing workers across our Ocean State, we know that climate solutions have to address the real, daily struggles that working Rhode Islanders face. Our state has the highest poverty rate in the New England region: more than one in nine Rhode Islanders struggle to afford basic necessities. Rhode Islanders in Black and brown communities are three times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated racial and economic inequities in our communities. That’s why Climate Jobs RI believes that bold steps to address climate breakdown–like the ones outlined in the Cornell report–are as socially necessary as they are ecologically urgent.

We know that rebuilding our infrastructure and tackling climate breakdown won’t be an easy feat. But the stakes have never been higher. Failing to invest in climate-readiness would mean parts of our critical state infrastructure could be underwater by 2035. Just last year, tropical Storm Henri cut power to 140,000 households from New Jersey to Maine, knocking out power for the majority of coastal Rhode Island. As extreme weather events intensify in severity and frequency, we need to be prepared.

Rhode Island is already hailed as a climate leader – we became the first state to build a fully operational offshore wind farm off Block Island and last year our state legislature passed the Act on Climate, which set ambitious, mandatory emissions reduction goals. Now, thanks to Climate Jobs RI and this comprehensive action plan, our state has a blueprint to help us live up to our reputation and meet our climate targets in a way that benefits workers and frontline communities. It’s time to seize the moment.

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George Nee is the President of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO. Sheila Dormody is the RI Director of Climate and Cities Programs for The Nature Conservancy, and Chair of the RI Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) Advisory Board.