New Group Wants to Accelerate Climate Action in Rhode Island

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Before Donald Trump jolted the environmental movement Nov. 8, Ken Payne and J. Timmons Roberts were already looking to inject urgency into Rhode Island’s climate-change and renewable-energy efforts.

Both have significant achievements in Rhode Island environmental initiatives. Payne’s environmental résumé goes back more than a decade, when he helped write the state's imperfect, yet-improving renewable-energy standard. He chairs the state distributed generation council, which establishes prices for the nationally recognized renewable-energy incentive.

Roberts, a professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University, is a foremost expert on climate policy and a force behind innovative climate initiatives such as a statewide carbon tax.

Both redirected the fervor from the failed divestment movement at Brown University into writing the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014, which created the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), a remaking of the stalled state climate committee.

Today, Payne and Roberts are dissatisfied with the EC4’s progress and its underlying assumptions about climate change. Roberts, in particular, is dismayed that emission-reduction targets overlook the proposed Burrillville power plant and new fossil-fuel infrastructure proposed for the state.

Both say they want their new initiative to augment EC4 objectives and serve as a messenger for public action on its recommendations.

“EC4, it’s needed but it’s not sufficient,” Payne said. “Ours is a job of argumentation and not of criticism.”

That augmentation will progress through grassroots, local initiatives guided by their new group, tentatively called the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island.

“If you need action, start in the community and create interstice actions and expectations for change,” Payne said. “Otherwise the likelihood of something to occur is small."

Payne noted that Rhode Island’s current pace of installing some 700 solar arrays annually isn't enough to reach the critical mass required for a wholesale shift away from fossil fuels.

“Do the math and 700 per year doesn’t get you to the innovator stage in Rhode Island,” Payne said.

The innovator stage is the first stage in the theory of diffusion of innovation, the bell curve that new technologies typically follow if widespread use is reached.

Payne, who has a master's degree in community planning and served as director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, believes wholesale adoption of renewable energy must start with grassroots action. Through a community-driven approach, residents shed their doubts and insecurities about solar arrays once they see their neighbors installing panels on their roofs.

“Their decision to act is based on what’s going on in the community,” he said.

Ultimately, Payne said, “We don’t need to say doom and gloom only. We don’t need to be in denial. We just need to get on with things.”

Roberts’ career has centered on climate change. He recently led a student group to Marrakech, Morocco, for the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22).

Roberts is keenly aware of the changing dynamics by climate change. The emission assumptions used for state emission-reduction targets for the Resilient Rhode Island Act, the legislation that created the EC4, were changing before the ink dried on the governor’s signature.

“We’re planning for fixed targets that are no longer scientifically justified,” Roberts said.

To take more aggressive steps in mitigation, Roberts said, “We need a credible program of doable actions that get us moving in the right direction, that get us to achieve the more ambitious client reductions that we need."

The calculus is straightforward. Rhode Island spends $3 billion annually importing fuel for running cars, generating electricity and heating buildings. Shifting that money to create local renewable energy, Roberts said, would bring jobs, cleaner air and resiliency in natural disasters “that pipelines and power plants don’t get you."

As a goal, the new alliance could also help Gov. Gina Raimondo meet targets of moving from fourth to first in national rankings for energy efficiency and solar power.

“We’re here to help her do that,” Roberts said.

Payne wants to follow the same community-led movements that created local land trusts and historic preservation groups, and couple that with the transformative power of consumer demand, which in a few years dramatically increased the market share of products such as organic food and craft beer.

“Systems respond to what people want,” Payne said.

Rhode Island sits in the middle of one of the most wealthy and progressive regions of the world. But with 400 miles of coastline, it's also one of the most susceptible areas to flooding and erosion. Thus, Payne and Roberts say initiatives such as multi-model transportation, solar energy and electric vehicles not only create jobs and save money, they make the state more resilient to a changing climate.

Coastal inundation is one of five factors that make Rhode Island suited for an energy transformation, Roberts said. The others: Rhode Island is small and adaptable with an effectual state government; lacks a fossil-fuel sector that would suffer from a shift to local energy, only new jobs to create; doesn’t have an influential lobby of climate deniers; a large Catholic population is more supportive than other states for taking on climate change, a mindset helped by Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment.

The new committee of 15-20 members has a working name of the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island. Monthly meetings begin in December. Two briefing papers will be released when the project officially launches on Earth Day 2017.

Payne said Rhode Island is perfectly suited to advance large-scale changes. The state is basically a single metro area governed by the General Assembly, which gives it the ability to pass transformative laws and initiatives.

“Depending upon which road it takes, tiny Rhode Island could be a leader of a new energy age for the U.S., or a middling actor locked into fossil fuel infrastructure for decades,” Roberts wrote in an essay about Rhode Island facing a choice between a future of renewable energy or fossil fuels.

And there is urgency.

“Things are happening with climate change much faster than scientists predicted 10 years ago,” Roberts recently told ecoRI News. “We need a credible program of doable actions that get us moving in the right direction, that get us to achieve the more ambition climate reductions that we need.”

Anyone interested in joining or learning more about the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island, should e-mail J. Timmons Roberts at