Providence's Climate Justice Plan Would Protect Most Vulnerable

Equity is a third tenet of addressing climate change in Providence. (City of Providence)

Equity is a third tenet of addressing climate change in Providence. (City of Providence)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A plan from the Office of Sustainability takes on climate-change adaptation and mitigation but also accounts for the city’s most vulnerable residents.

One of the emerging concerns about preparing for and combating climate change is “green gentrification.” Energy-efficient buildings topped with solar panels, neighborhood gardens, and new transit infrastructure drive up rents and displace low-income residents.

The city’s Climate Justice Plan, however, includes provisions that assure any changes consider equity and won’t transform the neighborhoods that suffer the most into more expensive places to live. With guidance from the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, a collaboration between the city, the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, and Groundwork Rhode Island, the latest climate plan has already trained community leaders to interview members of these frontline communities and to stay informed of current and future concerns from vulnerable residents.

The goal of the collaboration is to “make sure investment is for people who live there and not improving it so much they can no longer afford it,” said Leah Bamberger, the city’s director of sustainability.

Equity is a central part of addressing climate change, because the city and the Northeast have a history of racial injustice. This tainted past includes the use of cotton in local textile mills that came from slave labor in the South.

“There’s definitely a direct connection to the extraction economy, slavery and the wealth that was generated here locally,” Bamberger said. “So it’s something we need to really keep in mind as we think about climate action with an equity lens.”

This model of raw material and fuel extraction and exploitation ran through the Industrial Revolution and continues today. Heavy industry and manufacturing has been powered by fossil fuels and left a legacy of pollution and contaminated land that has caused high rates of lead poisoning and asthma.

The Port of Providence burdens low-income neighborhoods with air pollution and other health and safety risks. And climate change is expected to only make matters worse. The city’s industrial waterfront sits outside the Providence hurricane barrier and is one of the region’s most exposed areas to sea-level rise and storm surge. The city is projected to see 9 feet of sea-level rise by 2100 and with 3 feet of rise the port is expected to suffer.

Buildings generate 70 percent of the city’s climate emissions. (City of Providence)

Buildings generate 70 percent of the city’s climate emissions. (City of Providence)

Air pollution from the port and Interstate 95 has caused the South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods to endure some of the highest rates of asthma in southern New England — a problem that will get worse as temperatures rise and ozone alert days increase. Extreme temperature days are already more common and the mosquito season has lengthened from 97 days in 1989 to 113 days today. By 2100, the city’s climate is projected to equal south Florida, with an average temperature of 80.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

In addition to health risks, costs to consumers will increase, harming low-income communities the most.

“Like many things in Providence, the environmental burden is not equally shared,” Bamburger said during her PowerPoint presentation at the Jan. 22 meeting of the city’s Environmental Sustainability Task Force.

To address these inequities, the Climate Justice Plan proposes cleaning up the port by reducing emissions from vessels and eliminating the import and storage of hazardous and polluting material by 2040. A fee on fossil fuels shipped to the port and emissions produced there would be spent on environmental justice needs and climate-change adaptation along the waterfront.

The Climate Justice Plan complies with Mayor Jorge Elorza’s climate plan that pledges to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. The latest proposal meets those goals by slashing climate emissions from buildings, transportation, and waste management.

Residential and commercial buildings account for 71 percent of emissions in Providence. To reduce electricity use, the plan proposes a wholesale switch to renewable energy by 2050. This includes expanding rooftop solar installations, local microgrids, battery backup, and regional renewable energy power-purchase agreements.

Emissions from heating will be reduced with enhanced energy-efficiency standards, green building codes, and the phasing out natural-gas use, according to the plan.

New programs also would reduce utility shut-offs while making renewable energy affordable and accessible across the city. Low-income communities would also receive better access to public transit with lower-cost fares. And neighborhoods would be more walkable, and better equipped for bike use and zero-emission vehicles.

Money would be set aside for job training and assurance that locals would be hired to help the city prepare for climate change.

“Equity is core and central to all of this work,” Bamberger said. “If we get at equity, we’ll get at these other issues. It’s part of the root challenge here.”

The Climate Justice Plan is expected to be reviewed and considered by the Providence City Council in March.