R.I. Celebrates Independence Day with Climate Fireworks

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — During a typically quiet week for news Rhode Island announced a major lawsuit against fossil-fuel companies and released a number of climate-change plans, as well as a new funding source to help pay for them.

On July 2, the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) announced its strategy for preparing the state for the impacts of climate change. The Resilient Rhody report offers ideas and tools for bracing the state for damage to wetlands, forests, and environmental justice communities.

The 85-page report is the culmination of 54 existing research reports and studies conducted across the state since 2014. Shaun O’Rourke, chief resilience officer for Rhode Island, published the document in nine months, after holding 10 public meetings across the state.

“One of the things that we’ve learned is that there is a lot of stuff we can do right now,” O'Rourke said.

The report, however, doesn't include any immediate action steps or a timeline for meeting the goals. But O’Rourke said planning efforts will be announced at the next monthly EC4 meeting, when a team will be named to oversee the process.

At the June EC4 meeting, the committee of 11 state agency heads ratified the report. Many members praised the project for its inclusiveness. Meredith Brady of the Rhode Island Department of Transportation liked that Resilient Rhody was dissected into small tasks that the state and municipalities can manage.

“We’ve got this huge crisis that is looming, this plan allows us to break it down to an action plan we can actually do,” Brady said.

Jeffrey Willis, deputy director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), suggested that the report put more emphasis of sea-level rise estimates for 2030 and 2050 instead of the more “intangible” 2100 estimates. Willis noted that state’s strong university and agency science expertise will continue to contribute to adaptation planning.

“The tools being developed are out there, it’s not like we have to start from scratch,” he said.

CRMC also released its latest planning guide, the Shoreline Special Area Management Plan (Beach SAMP). The planning tool offers resources for builders, planners, and property owners for the myriad climate risks along the state’s 420 miles of coastline.

The Beach SAMP has no new regulations, but it does require applicants seeking CRMC permits to submit an assessment of climate-change risks like sea-level rise and erosion. The assessment can't influence the CRMC’s decision on an application, but it does require acknowledgment of the perils from the applicant.

“(We) want the applicant to understand the potential impacts, not from today, but from 30-plus years of that project’s design life,” Willis said.

Data collected for the Beach SAMP’s predictive modeling programs will be used in the lawsuit the state filed against 21 fossil-fuel companies on July 2. The Superior Court case seeks unspecified damage for past and future damage to roads, ports, beaches, and coastal cities and towns.

“The defendants have contributed greatly to the increased costs associated with climate change, and as such, should be held legally responsible for those damages,” Attorney General Peter Kilmartin said.

The first-of-its-kind lawsuit takes on Shell, ExxonMobil, BP, and other oil and gas companies for knowing for 50 years that they were contributing to the state’s climate predicament. While any monetary award is likely years away, the state needs funds immediately to fortify roads and sewage treatment plants against floods and storm surge.

If voters approve the $48.5 million Green Economy and Clean Water Bond this November, $10 million will go to coastal climate-change adaptation and upgrades of low-lying sewage treatment plants. Another $20 million would fund priority infrastructure projects, many of which have been identified by state agencies.

Funds from a $250 million school construction bond would make schools better equipped for climate change.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., also announced on July 3 that $30 million for preserving natural areas that lessen the impacts of climate change such as marshes, dunes and beaches, oyster and coral reefs, forests, rivers, and barrier islands.

The funds are available for local universities, nonprofits, and government entities. Some $500,000 will fund regional planning and research. The funds are the first released by the National Coastal Resilience Fund. Whitehouse’s legislation established the federal investment program, which was previously named the the National Oceans and Coastal Security Fund.

Some projects are moving ahead thanks to outside funding, such as the $14.4 million Rhode Island received from the Volkswagen emissions-rigging scandal. The money will pay for new electric buses and charging stations for the state transit system.

“The trick of all this is to have a sustained coordinated action plan,” said Janet Coit, EC4 chair and director of the Department of Environmental Management. "We are stretched extremely thin."