R.I. Business Leader Links Climate and Economy

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Barbara Cardiff is a serious businesswoman who talks seriously about climate change and its potential impact on Rhode Island.

“I contend that the conversation around climate change will be one of the most important of our era,” she said during a March 19 House hearing on a bill to study the economic impacts of climate change and sea-level rise.

Cardiff is the chair of the Westerly Economic Development Commission, a past board member of the local Chamber of Commerce and former head of local business organizations, most of which are not known for their proactive approach to climate change and environmental matters. Yet, Cardiff maintains that climate change is not just a problem for future generations, but an issue for the present.

“We want to have sensitive discussions now in advance of ongoing states of emergency,” she said.

Cardiff is one of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent appointees to the new Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) advisory board, a committee that will help prepare the state for climate-change adaptation and the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions.

Much is expected of this 13-member board, such as helping to achieve 80 percent carbon emission reductions by 2050, legislation to address sea-level rise and the all-important task of getting the business community to participate, especially those in coastal and flood-prone areas.

Cardiff has excellent credentials: she’s the former owner of a beachfront bed and breakfast and has helped organize the economic response to extreme weather events linked to climate change, such as the 2010 flood and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Both hit Westerly hard.

“We are in uncharted territory and diligently developing a rulebook of procedures in response to emergencies in the field,” Cardiff said.

She uses terms such as “sustainable, holistic economy,” and she wants to plan ahead for land that will disappear at the hands of the sea and from flooding. She has little tolerance for climate-change deniers and skeptics who play the “blame game” after natural disasters.

Cardiff also recognizes that the business community doesn’t necessarily share her progressive ideas and that the goal of any new initiative, she explained, is community building instead of alienation. It helps that businesses, especially those in coastal regions, are coming to terms with the magnitude of climate change, she said.

But any new initiative requires money, Cardiff said. “It’s only a good a plan if that plan can fund itself."

She gets practically sublime when it comes to the psychological barriers to tackling climate change, saying:

“I implore you all to consider the natural, human, psychological defense mechanism known as cognitive dissonance. This is a syndrome of incomprehension and an inability to incorporate new information when encountering a new paradigm. Economic impact may imply an automatic onslaught of insurmountable deficit. Let us learn from the more gentle perseverance of water, which seeks the path of least resistance. I postulate that the phrase ‘economic development’ may hold a negative connotation as it has been interpreted to mean an exploitation of finite resources. I encourage you to explore the infinite creative possibilities contained in the more positive phrase “developing a more sustainable economy.”

Cardiff may not be a champion for dialing back the prevailing belief in perpetual economic growth, but she is one Rhode Island business leader addressing the challenges being created by a changing climate.