R.I. Intensifies Climate Planning with First Resiliency Officer

Videos and text By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Shaun O'Rourke was recently named Rhode Island's first chief resiliency officer. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

Shaun O'Rourke was recently named Rhode Island's first chief resiliency officer. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

PROVIDENCE — It seemed odd that state treasurer Seth Magaziner would speak at a major announcement on climate change. Yet, after remarks by Gov. Gina Raimondo and Rhode Island's congressional delegation, Magaziner offered a compelling argument for why Rhode Islanders should pay attention to climate change.

“Climate change is expensive, it is costly, there is a financial dimension to this,” Magaziner said during a Sept. 15 Statehouse ceremony to rollout a climate action plan and name the state’s first chief resiliency officer.

Magaziner isn’t taking that title, it goes to Shaun O’Rourke, the current director of stormwater and resiliency at the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. But Magaziner did note why everyone, including climate deniers, will feel the pinch of climate change.

With the choice of O’Rourke as the head of resiliency, the state is clearly focusing on the financial elements of climate change. Both Magaziner and O’Rourke are experts on financing renewable-energy projects and overhauling public-drinking water systems. They will now fortify the state for the impacts of climate change, a process known as adaptation. Adaptation focuses on protecting vital public buildings and infrastructure from sea-level rise, flooding and extreme weather. Reducing carbon emissions, called mitigation, will be led by the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4). 

O”Rourke will join the EC4 to fulfill his first major task: Write a state resiliency plan by July 1, 2018. The plan will include funding proposals to protect the most at-risk infrastructure and economic zones, such as wastewater treatment facilities, low-lying coastal roads, and seaports.

“This plan is very much going to focus on the adaptation, the preparedness responses, the methods and approaches the state can take to be better prepared for climate change," O’Rourke said. "And we’re going to try to identify what those priorities are."

Magaziner noted that the Infrastructure Bank can finance these projects without new state funding. The list of projects, however, will likely be extensive, as projections for sea-level rise are as much as 12 feet by 2100. The Ocean State has some 400 miles of shoreline, with thousands of homes and businesses in coastal and riverine flood zones.

During the Sept. 15 speeches, safeguarding commercial, economic and military interests received more attention than protecting the health and well-being of low-income and other at-risk groups. The resolution signed by Raimondo calls for addressing health concerns, as well as risks unique to cities and towns across the state. To find those risks, O’Rourke will host a series of public “roundtables” in communities across the state.

After O’Rourke spoke, four college students representing the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition asked him about taking on social-justice issues. O’Rourke replied that social equity and public-health issues will be included in the scope of his report.

“Equity really needs to be a piece of this," he said. "Resilience is rooted in people, so equity will be a theme through the the entire strategy."

Raimondo and other speakers noted that Rhode Island is ahead of most other states in climate-change adaptation and mitigation. It was suggested at the recent governors conference that states appoint a head of resilience to coordinate emergency preparedness and responses with state and federal agencies, especially as extreme weather is becoming the norm.

"Our state is on the front lines of sea-level rise and increased storm surges, and we must do everything we can to be prepared for these threats," Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., said.

Langevin and other members of the congressional delegation said the need for another climate-change initiative was prompted by inaction in Washington, D.C.

"The Trump administration is walking away from the issue of climate change. That means at the local and state level, we need to step up and I am pleased to see Rhode Island taking action," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said.

Gov. Gina Raimondo signs the Stand Up To Climate Change Executive Order.

Gov. Gina Raimondo signs the Stand Up To Climate Change Executive Order.