Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — For three days inside the Rhode Island Convention Center, governors steered clear of saying “climate change.” The public literature outlining the meetings and activities for the July 13-15 National Governors Association summer gathering didn’t mention the term. Climate change was said twice during a discussion titled “Preparing For the Extreme: Building Resilient Communities.” Only once was it uttered by a governor.
“Whether they believe in climate change or not, they are all aware of it today,” said Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, referring to the residents of his state and the ubiquitous reminders they have of climate-change threats, such as sea-level rise.
For the record, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did mention the “fight against climate change” in his speech to the governors. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence boasted about expanding offshore drilling, rolling back the Clean Power Plan and reviving the Keystone XL pipeline.
While climate-change mitigation wasn’t on the agenda, adaptation is well underway in several states. Even as the dozen or so governors in attendance at the breakout meeting avoided saying “climate change," they embraced the word “resilience” as a means to address the destruction caused by more frequent extreme weather, flooding and a rising shoreline.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards recognized that sea-level rise was a problem. Since he took office in January 2016, 57 of 64 parishes have been declared natural-disaster areas.
“Resiliency is a huge issue for us in Louisiana,” Edwards said.
The Louisiana Democrat championed the relocation of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Native American tribe as an successful response to the state’s rapid loss of land to sea-level rise.
Republican governors from inland states also seek help with sudden and powerful weather events. Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead wants better forecasting for tornadoes. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott seek assistance with the preparation and response to flooding.
Brock Long, who was confirmed as director of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) on June 23, promised to improve disaster-relief programs, but noted that he doesn’t want to spend money on post-disaster aid if states don’t prepare for them. FEMA, Long said, spent $3.2 billion between 2011 to 2014 on disaster relief and only $222 million on emergency planning.
“It should be flipped-flopped. It's backwards,” he said.
Long said he worried that states suffer from “hazard amnesia,” meaning that they quickly forget devastating natural disasters and fail to plan for the next one. Most people also don't have the cash on hand to buy emergency supplies ahead of a disaster. Yet, simple steps such as teaching residents how to turn off water valves, assist with search and rescue efforts and administer CPR can save lives and money, he said.
"I don’t believe we’ve built a true cultural of preparedness in our citizens," Long said.
Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, the foundation that helps cities adapt to climate change, urged every state to hire a chief resiliency officer to coordinate federal and state emergency planning and responses. He advised against building sea walls and instead urged replacing aging infrastructure with green infrastructure projects, like the Big U in New York City, to manage flooding and improve the vitality of urban areas.
“Why not address the threat of flooding while simultaneously tackling other challenges like dwindling public space and neighborhood isolation?” Berkowitz said.
Soon after the meeting concluded, some 200 climate activists gathered across the street from the convention center to urge the governors to take aggressive action to cut fossil-fuel emissions.
The protesters called out Gov. Gina Raimondo to respond to a recent letter from the Civic Alliance for a Cooler Rhode Island seeking zero emissions by 2035 and to enact a carbon tax-and-dividend program.
Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, said Raimondo’s act of signing a letter from U.S. governors and mayors in support of the Paris climate agreement was “empty, and meaningless and vacuous as long as she doesn’t take action on climate.”
Elmer chided Raimondo for not opposing the proposed Burrillville power plant.
“What Rhode Island does not need now is a new carbon, long-lived, carbon-emitting power plant," he said. "The bottom line is very, very simple: actions speak louder than words.”
Kat Burnham of People’s Power & Light said Raimondo lacks a clear action plan for addressing climate emissions.
The financial and health costs, Burnham said, will only increase as long as the state relies on fossil fuels.
“We cannot afford to send billions of dollars to other states for natural gas that we don’t want,” she said.
“Environmental protection is not a political issues; it is a human issue," Providence College student Alex Duryea said.
Duryea, the student sustainability coordinator at PC, called for a ban on fracking and an aggressive switch to renewable energy. “The time to act is now," she said.