Gov. Chafee Unveils Belated Climate Master Plan

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BRISTOL, R.I. — Three years and four months into his one term in office, Gov. Lincoln Chafee released a plan to address climate change in Rhode Island.

The 57-page draft document is an across-the-board effort to focus public and private entities on reducing heat-trapping gas emissions and managing climate change-induced problems such as flooding. The report was drawn up after a speedy two-month process that included 10 public meetings organized by the Executive Climate Change Council (EC3), a committee of state agency officials that Chafee authorized in late February.

If the EC3 adopts the proposal — public comment ends May 20 — the council has until the end of the year to fill in the specifics for a five-year climate plan.

The main objectives of the program seek to integrate climate-change action into all levels of government and key aspects of the economy. It includes improved collaboration between state agencies and partnerships with municipal and federal entities. It encourages public-private collaboration; identifies vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and low-income communities; and advocates for improved public education and communication. It also endorses climate-related legislation currently in the General Assembly, and sets targets for emission reductions.

During Chafee’s time in office, other efforts to tackle climate change, such as the legislator-driven Climate Change Commission, have suffered from infighting at the General Assembly and made little progress — a lack of funding has often been noted as an obstacle. In recent years, legislation to address climate change on a broad scale received little support from the governor’s office and died in committee.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, passed its Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008 and buttressed it with the Green Jobs Act and Green Communities Act. All were part of a first-in-the-nation climate plan that is credited with boosting economic growth while addressing climate change.

At the May 8 press event to mark the release of the climate plan “A Resilient Rhode Island: Being Practical About Climate Change,” Chafee had an ambiguous answer when asked why action on climate change was championed so late in his term.

Chafee told ecoRI News that addressing climate change “was always a priority from day one.” But, he added, his first order of business once taking office was to improve the local economy and create jobs, implying that tackling climate change wasn't considered a growth engine.

Yet, job creation and economic development were benefits of the climate plan Chafee touted at the recent Bristol event. “There are economic opportunities with extreme weather and climate change. Let’s take advantage of those,” he said.

Allan Klindworth of the environmental engineering firm AECOM, a global company that designs green infrastructure in Rhode Island, said climate change impedes commerce but “taking action to prepare for the issues of climate change reduces costs and disruption. It can also quicken recovery, getting people back to work faster and provide (economic) opportunities.”

Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM), the lead agency on climate-change efforts and head of the EC3, said Chafee has had climate change on his agenda from the beginning, but had to rebuild or reorganize several state agencies before launching a master plan. Those efforts included a revamped state master plan and new leadership at the Office of Energy Resources and the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, brags about jobs and growth in its green sector, with an estimated 80,000 employees working at 5,500 firms, and consistent annual double-digit job growth. The Bay State's climate legislation also triggered other programs, such as successful solar initiatives that have exceeded growth targets for renewable energy.

Massachusetts launched its programs with $68 million in state funds. Rhode Island, by contrast, has been in cost-cutting mode and relying on federal stimulus funds, grants and parsing of existing budgets to improve its green programs and initiatives.

Chafee’s new climate plan, for the most part, mimics what Massachusetts did in 2008. Oversight runs through the governor’s office. It sets benchmarks for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and offers guidance to municipalities on mitigation, adaptation, renewable-energy and energy-efficiency efforts. It promotes private investment and partnerships, and supports new legislation for greenhouse gas reductions and renewable-energy programs.

Other highlights of the Resilient Rhode Island plan include: an eight-state, zero-emission vehicle plan; promote renewable thermal fuels; study “resilient microgrids” as backup power during power outages; shoreline and wetland protections and restoration; new standards for land use; upgrade roadways, and drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

What does the report lack? There’s scant talk of dramatic reduction in fossil-fuel use, an effort Massachusetts is undertaking. The Sierra Club of Rhode Island says the emission reduction targets are inadequate and have been boosted simply by the increased use of natural gas.

Abel Collins, program manager for Sierra Club Rhode Island, acknowledged that environmental groups like his shoulder some of the blame for the late start on comprehensive reform, because they didn't explicitly lobby for a master plan. But, he said, an all-inclusive climate program is better late than never.

“I don’t think that would have happened without Chafee being in support of this,” Collins said.