R.I. Environmental Activists Ponder Being Trumped

By NICHOLAS BOKE/ecoRI News contributor

The environment was a really hot topic for a while. The Trump administration’s environment-related activity was often front-page material, sometimes even above the fold. Until, that is, the recent uproar over the travel ban on Syrian refugees and visa-wielding visitors from selected Muslim countries.

But the often-bad environmental news never vanished: reports on climate change had disappeared from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website; half the EPA’s staff might be fired; nervousness surfaced among Rhode Island officials about the hold the EPA had been told to put on new grants.

Even the “good” news was only moderately good, as Trump nominee for EPA administrator Scott Pruitt flip-flopped, acknowledging that climate change wasn’t a hoax, and that it was probably, in part, maybe, the result of human activity, though it would be hard to determine exactly to what extent.

All this was going on as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) confirmed that 2016 was the third year in a row to break the hottest-year-yet record.

Nobody is very happy about any of this.

Take John King, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, who says, “I’m not by nature a raving optimist, but the evidence is that it’s going to be bad. The people being appointed seem to be pretty extreme.”

Betsy Stubblefield Loucks, an environmental consultant who sits on the board of the Rhode Island Energy Efficiency & Resource Management Council, has a complaint about the new administration: “Data doesn’t matter anymore. That kills me.”

A little more sanguine, Rose Jones of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) comments in a report prepared for this article that, “It is still early in the Trump Administration. We are tracking developments closely and assessing any impacts to our programs. ... Federal funding is critical to our work, and we will continue to advocate for the importance of this funding to Rhode Island.”

On the other hand, while nobody involved in environmental work in Rhode Island is especially upbeat about the future, some are moderately philosophical.

Jonathan Stone, executive director of Save The Bay, for example, explaining that Rhode Island is a “delegated state” and responsible for enforcing federal environmental law, says, “I’ve seen administrations come and seen them go. The thing that worries us most is how much money the federal government provides to clean up the water. Congress controls the purse strings.”

Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), shares others’ larger concerns, remarking “there are three things we can do about climate change: mitigate, adapt and suffer. Depending on how we deal with the mix of the first two determines how you have to deal with the third, which becomes more costly.”

Regarding CRMC’s work, however, he elaborates: “The state is usually agile because the feds don’t tell us what to do or how to do it. We’re actually usually out in front of the feds in what we’re doing. ... But we’re like everybody else, in a wait-and-see mode.”

Kurt Teichert, senior lecturer in environmental studies at Brown University, offers a different take on the current state of affairs.

“I think the key in an administration that seems to be coming in with this very anti-regulatory approach,” he says, “is that it’s even more important that action takes place with nonprofits within the scale of the local and the regional. Under [George] W. [Bush] nonprofits and locals were the key to keeping things going.”

Whatever the concerns, the work goes on.

Jones notes that the DEM hopes to continue a variety of efforts, including support for recreation-, food- and agriculture-related environmental activities, and assessing the vulnerability to climate change of the state’s wastewater facilities.

She also emphasizes that “Rhode Islanders consistently support environmental protection, and we were thrilled to see the Green Economy Bond pass with 67% voter approval in November.”

Stone says that 97 percent of Save The Bay’s funding for its environmental, habitat rehabilitation and advocacy programs comes from private sources.

“Are we concerned about federal funding?” he asks. “Of course, but for decades spending on environmental health has been very popular, supported by both parties, in good times and not so good.”

To Fugate, this mix of private, local, state and federal support for environmental issues can play an important role in the future.

“Coastal management,” he says, “is often viewed as a states-rights issue. Many Republicans are in line with coastal programs. We fall under the Department of Commerce, not the EPA.”

For example, the salt marsh-raising program CRMC is currently working on came from a post-Superstorm Sandy congressional appropriation.

Some Rhode Island affiliates defer to their national organizations, such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC Rhode Island’s marketing and communications manager Tim Mooney passed along a link to TNC CEO Mark Tercek’s Addressing Environmental Challenges Today—Core Principles for a Time of Change, which lays out a number of things that need to be done, including paying attention to scientific findings, harnessing market forces and working with other nations.

Two of TNC’s recommendations are echoed by Brown’s Teichert: “Be inclusive” and “encourage collaboration.”

“What I want to support is local organizations, where I know the people and the work they do,” Teichert says. “When I give them a dollar, I have a good sense of what that dollar’s going to do.”

Consultant Loucks, as well, believes that the focus of the work needs to remain local.

“The good part is that it’s not like the early ’90s,” she says. “It’s not weird to expect to be able to recycle, or to think about gas mileage. We have a lot more tools now; it’s easier to buy organic food, energy-efficient lamps that look good and energy-efficient furnaces.

“Now the question is, ‘How can we have an environmental movement that’s relevant to everyone?’ We have to address those issues of classism and racism so the environmental movement can take on social-justice issues.”

Meanwhile, URI’s King keeps a different big picture in mind.

“The energy plan on the EPA website doesn’t mention alternative energy at all. Not even one sentence. But we have a lot of European countries involved [in wind energy] with deep pockets, so if they take away the tax credits for wind farms, it’ll hurt, but not make it go away.

“Big players from Norway and Denmark have leases off the New England coast. I hope that locals like Deepwater Wind won’t go out of business, but their deal with Long Island Power would be built by the time Trump finishes his first term.”

Save The Bay’s Stone offers an off-beat bit of optimism.

“It’s good to remember,” he says, “that the federal bureaucracy moves slowly, and sometimes that’s a good thing. This might be one of those times. All of us have to take a deep breath.”

Providence resident Nicholas Boke is a freelance writer and international education consultant who works in the Middle East and Africa. His now badly misnamed blog can be found at waitingforthebarbarian.wordpress.com.