Annual Whitehouse Forum Tackles Climate Change

By CATHERINE SENGEL/ecoRI News contributor

PROVIDENCE — Strategies for tackling the challenges of a rapidly warming planet were recently delivered from a range of perspectives at the fifth annual Rhode Island Energy & Environmental Leaders Day held at the Rhode Island Convention Center. This annual forum gives Rhode Island organizations a chance to engage with federal officials making policy in Washington, D.C.

“Climate change is perhaps the most difficult, complex and necessary issue for us to face environmentally in this country and elsewhere that any of us as a species have ever had to face,” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy, one of three speakers for the event, said, underscoring both the health risks, such as chronic asthma, and economic costs.

Addressing a Sept. 5 audience of close to 250 representatives of environmental initiatives across the region, McCarthy championed the EPA’s newest Clean Air Plan for cutting emissions from power plants as a proposal that sets standard and puts states at the forefront of crafting ways to reduce carbon pollution. She said this new policy best serves local needs while creating economic opportunities close to home.

“The challenge is that everybody needs to play,” McCarthy said.

Considering the ocean side of the environmental equation, famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle, another of the day’s speakers, listed imminent threats, from major decline of fish stocks around the world — cod, tuna and sharks — to the collapse of seagrass meadows and corral reefs.

“Our life-support system is currently at risk,” she said. “The good news is we know it’s happening. We can plan the future based on knowledge.”

Earle called for establishing safe havens, much like national parks, to protect flourishing aquaculture.

With Rhode Island already at the national forefront of cleaner air and water initiatives, a roundtable forum made up of leaders of public and private environmental agencies gave updates on recent developments in areas from energy-efficient technologies and economic incentives to risk assessment and responsible use of available resources.

Experts speaking about the cost end of the issue noted that tax incentives and discounts at purchase are beginning to make technologies, from solar panels to electric cars, more affordable. Creating and servicing new green infrastructure and energy-efficient technologies will bring jobs to bolster economic development at all levels, the panelists predicted.

Rhode Island, however, is less prepared to handle the increasing volume of stormwater runoff, according to officials. Monitoring headwaters and feeder streams, as well as responsible wastewater management, are key to reducing pollutants and controlling flooding and erosion. Standards and measures are in the works to calculate future risk and to determine where and how to build a resilient barrier to storm surges.

Convened by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., this annual environmental conference provides a forum for dialog across a range of stakeholders. Afternoon breakout sessions considered more in-depth ways of taking advantage of economic opportunities in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and ways to create sustainable and resilient cities and towns, leverage government funding and encourage investment from businesses.