Climate-Change Workshop Accused of Lacking Diversity

A recent climate-change workshop at Save The Bay lacked diversity and public notice, according to attendees. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

A recent climate-change workshop at Save The Bay lacked diversity and public notice, according to attendees. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Immigration, segregation and reparations were some of the unexpected issues raised during the first workshop in a new process to prepare Rhode Island for climate change.

The recent meeting at Save The Bay’s waterfront headquarters ran into criticism early and often for its remote location and inadequate publicity that failed to draw representation from the city’s low-income and ethnic-minority populations.

“Seventy-five percent of Providence does not even know this place exists. We need (meetings) like this in our communities, in our schools,” said Monica Huertas, of South Providence.

Huertas was one on a handful of protesters to greet the meeting’s host, Shaun O’Rourke, at the entrance to Save The Bay. O’Rourke is the state’s new chief resiliency officer and the activists wanted him to take a stance on the natural gas liquefaction plant proposed for the city’s industrial port, a project that symbolizes the current and likely future suffering of the nearby low-income neighborhoods.

The protesters didn't speak with O’Rourke, but they joined the workshop where the some 75 attendees discussed what to protect and how to protect it as the threat of climate change grows. In addition to the low-lying industrial waterfront, the lists included housing, public transportation, stormwater infrastructure, farmland, and T.F. Green Airport.

“It’s also about our drinking-water infrastructure that needs to be upgraded to be safe,” said Sheila Dormody, the Providence metro programs manager for The Nature Conservancy.

The conversations veered from concrete needs like cooling centers to weighty social-justice issues such as equitable housing, free-college tuition and citizen-driven planning.

“One of our needs is to get National Grid to stop building junk and wasting money on things like power plants and LNG facilities,” Huertas said.

Participants offered natural and built assets that need protecting from climate change.

Participants offered natural and built assets that need protecting from climate change.

Food, farming and energy expert Ken Payne said segregation is rampant in Rhode Island, preventing climate refugees from leaving their homes if they become unlivable.

When asked about the range of consequential and perhaps unsolvable problems, O’Rourke explained that the upcoming workshops will follow an “adaptive management process” so that unforeseen concerns are addressed.

“Resiliency touches all aspects of people,” O’Rourke said. “Some of the most vulnerable folks in our state, we have to make sure they are represented. We are looking at working with them.”

As for the lack of community representation at the workshop, O’Rourke explained that the meeting was intended for community and municipal leaders rather than the broader public, to uncover key statewide issues. Those In attendance included local environmental leaders such as former head of Environmental Protection Agency’s New England region, Curt Spalding, Brown University professor J. Timmons Roberts, and Parag Agrawal, the director of Statewide Planning.

None of the five upcoming workshops are scheduled to be held in the Providence metro area.

Harry August of the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition called for more inclusive and centrally located meetings so that the state’s most vulnerable populations can participate. 

“O'Rourke and his team are putting the burden on low-income and marginalized communities to advocate for themselves and for a equitable process,” August said.

The next workshop is scheduled for Oct. 12 at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island in Smithfield, 12 Sanderson Road. A final report on the findings is due July 1, 2018.