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Rhode Island must do more to get climate ready

With so much of its population and economic activity concentrated in highly exposed coastal communities, Rhode Island should lead — not follow — on preparing for climate change.

A truck navigates flooding on Industrial Road in Cumberland, on Sept. 6, 2022. Heavy rains caused street flooding and forced the closure of major roads in Rhode Island on Labor Day.WJAR/ via AP

Last month, government emissaries went to Egypt for the Climate Change Conference COP27 and confronted the almost certain scenario that the planet will warm by at least 1.0 to 2.0 C° by 2050. And as the planet warms, heavier rain deluges, hotter and longer heat waves, higher storm surges and ever bigger wildfires will more severely disrupt everything that makes communities across the world secure.

According to reporting in Scientific American’s E&E news, most scientists believe Earth has never warmed this fast. Warming that previously took hundreds if not thousands of years will occur in just decades.

Efforts to build resilient communities must not be limited by the usual political constraints that make bold action impossible. The threat that climate change poses for each and every community must be rigorously considered by quantitatively measuring how sensitive each community is to specific threats, like storm surge and extreme heat.


In Rhode Island, the cornerstones of the state’s climate readiness strategy are the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (with membership limited to state agencies), the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, the 2018 Resilient Rhody plan and the Municipal Resilience Program. But are they aligned with the true scope of climate change risks?

What will happen when repeated extreme rain falls on Metro Providence with its aged stormwater system? Which areas are the most vulnerable “heat islands”? Are existing air-conditioned public facilities like libraries sufficient for handling community cooling needs when heat waves last several weeks instead of days? What are the storm surge thresholds that will disable wastewater plants and other vital facilities, and when will these facilities cease to be viable?

The Resilient Rhody and the Municipal Resilience programs are the best efforts of dedicated public servants who were asked to move climate adaptation work forward. The recommended actions are positive steps forward. But without enough funding for rigorous analysis for localized modeling of future climate change scenarios, these programs lack the information needed to prepare for the true scale of the threats Rhode Island could face.


Rhode Island’s neighbors are taking bolder steps. Massachusetts committed millions to community level resilience planning, hundreds of millions to implementation, and is developing performance standards to measure effectiveness. Mobilizing assets at the University of Connecticut, Connecticut established the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Adaptation, completed its first plan in 2013 and created the Governor’s Council on Climate Change in 2019. Actively moving on reworking regulations and standards, both Maine and Vermont, like Connecticut, created broadly representative Climate Change Councils that advise their governors. By including academic, business, government and non-governmental leaders in a formal way, these states are taking more holistic approaches that recognize adapting to climate change is everyone’s challenge.

Against well-considered criteria, the Union of Concerned Scientists just released a report evaluating where New England States are on building resilience. Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts are clearly doing more to prepare for future climate conditions. What UCS did not do is consider: Which states are most vulnerable? With so much of Rhode Island’s population and economic activity concentrated in highly exposed coastal communities, Rhode Island’s level of vulnerability exceeds any other state in New England. Given what is at stake, Rhode Island should lead — not follow — on getting ready for climate change.


Today, Narragansett Bay is a healthy, high-functioning estuary. Thirty years ago, it was regarded as one of the most polluted bays in America. How was this achieved? After building broad public support and doing extensive science establishing the scope of needed actions, over $1 billion will have been spent on restoration. This is the blueprint to a climate resilient future. But we don’t have 30 years to get it done.

In January, with a historic projected state revenue surplus and enormous funding support now available from the federal government, Governor McKee and the legislature will return to the State House with an opportunity to expand the Act on Climate to embrace this challenge without sacrificing other priorities.

To not act means ignoring Rhode Island’s motto and undermining the “hope” that Rhode Island can secure a thriving future for its citizens through the coming storm of climate disruption.

Curt Spalding is senior advisor to the Providence Resilience Partnership, and principal at Spalding Environment and Climate Strategies. He is past New England administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and past executive director of Save the Bay. He lives in Cranston.