Rhode Island leading way to address climate change


Over the past few days, both the Rhode Island government and one of the state’s institutes of higher education have taken important steps to address the challenge of climate change, proving the awareness and acceptance of this issue is on the rise in the Ocean State.

On Friday, Governor Lincoln Chafee was joined by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, other government leaders and environmental advocates to announce an executive order to create the Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Council (ECCC), a nine-person council dedicated to looking at the challenges global climate change poses to the state and evaluating steps the state can take to combat those challenges.

The executive order says that there is strong evidence and scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions have caused changes in global climate, weather patterns and ocean conditions, specifically mentioning “higher peak summer temperatures, rising sea levels, warmer and wetter winters, ocean acidification, increased periods of drought, increased coastal erosion, and increased frequency of severe precipitation events and flooding” as just some of the changes occurring throughout the world.

Specifically, the executive order provides four measurements to prove climate change is affecting our oceans:

l Sea level at the Newport tide station has risen 10 inches since 1930 and is predicted to rise three feet by 2100.

l The surface temperature of Narragansett Bay has risen 4 degrees since the 1960s, and the number of days that temperature is over 90 degrees has doubled.

l Inland areas that used to experience rare flooding are now flooding regularly during monthly high tide and extreme precipitation.

l Rising sea level has allowed flooding to reach further inland, causing storm surges to impact more residential and commercial properties, as well as public infrastructure.

Jonathon Stone, executive director of Save The Bay, also took a few moments during Friday’s press conference at the West Warwick Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility to discuss the changes he and his organization have seen throughout the bay, calling the creation of this council “the right step at the right time.”

“Our observations are representative of what you are seeing up and down the coast,” explained Stone. “The inevitable will win out, which is the shore is moving.”

Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council agreed, saying, “We’re seeing these effects today; it’s here upon us already.”

Fugate added that agencies throughout the state have been working on strategies to address climate change individually for sometime, many that are considered “vanguard” compared to other areas of the country.

That is why Chafee believes the time to come together is now.

“I am establishing the council because for too long, there has been strong evidence and scientific consensus that manmade greenhouse gases will have profound effects on global climate, weather patterns and ocean conditions; effects that the state cannot afford to ignore,” said Chafee in a press release. “Rhode Island must act boldly to position the state as a national leader in climate adaptation with a comprehensive approach that will benefit our communities.”

Whitehouse has been a champion in Washington for climate change, speaking about the topic 50 times; he applauded the governor and other environmental advocates in Rhode Island for their work making Rhode Island a leader in finding strategies to combat the effects of climate change.

“It is very important that governors around the country step up like Governor Chafee has,” said Whitehouse in his remarks. “We’ll keep the fight up in Washington and Governor Chafee will keep up the fight here.”

Chafee and the other speakers were asked how Rhode Island, the smallest state in the country, can be expected to make a difference when much of the greenhouse gases come from foreign countries.

“We’re going to do it despite their pollutants from other states and countries,” responded Chafee, pointing out that the purpose of this council will be to find strategies to lower the state’s carbon footprint and find ways to prepare the state for changes such as rising sea levels and massive flood events.

“This is really an opportunity for Rhode Island to lead by example,” added Whitehouse.

The nine-member council will be headed by Department of Environmental Management director Janet Coit, and include the directors of the following state agencies: Coastal Resources Management Council, Department of Administration, Department of Transportation, Department of Health, Emergency Management Agency, Office of Energy Resources, Division of Planning, and Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.

“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to ensuring the health and resilience of our natural resources, infrastructure and quality of life,” said Coit in a press release. “I look forward to working with the council over the coming months to develop an action plan that will address the impacts of climate change on Rhode Island.”

Some of the duties assigned to this council include assessing and coordinating current climate change efforts by state agencies, study the effects of climate change on the state and come up with strategies to prepare for the effects, communicate strategies to the public, work with municipalities to support “sustainable and resilient communities,” and work with other states throughout New England on issues they share with our state.

The governor explained that support and information from individual communities would be instrumental in this effort.

“It is definitely going to be part of this,” said Chafee. “Preparation is going to take city by city.”

The council’s first formal report will be due to the governor by May 1, with subsequent reports due by May 1 of each year after; he will also receive brief monthly reports on progress.

Just 72 hours after Chafee signed his executive order establishing this new council, the University of Rhode Island Climate Change Collaborative Team launched their new website in collaboration with Whitehouse.

The new site, “Rhode Island’s Climate Challenge: Waves of Change” (www.RIClimateChange.org) aims to promote the issues of climate change in a public-friendly way, designed so people with varying levels of scientific knowledge, political and cultural opinions, and personal and professional concerns can understand. It aims to guide Rhode Islanders through the changes, impacts and actions that are relative to climate change.

“Rhode Islanders need the best information available as they adapt to coastal erosion, higher risk for storm surge, shifting seasons and fisheries, and other effects related to climate change. This website can be an important tool in educating our families and communities about what to expect and how to respond to the challenges of climate change,” said Whitehouse in a URI press release.

Whitehouse also served as a featured speaker at yesterday’s site launch at the URI Coastal Institute on their Narragansett Bay Campus. The site includes a number of multimedia aspects, including cartoons, video interviews, scientific information and a viewer response area to appeal to everyone from kids to adults.

"This site is a breath of fresh air in presenting a wealth of information on our rapidly changing climate and its local impacts. It is engaging, well organized and rich in content. For anyone on the journey of understanding the field of climate science, this is an important destination," said Stone in the URI press release.

In the same release, director of the URI Coastal Institute Judith Swift said the site was “an online cup of coffee with a friend who needs to wake up to the perils and opportunities of climate change.”

To create the site, the Collaborative turned to the many scientific experts at URI as well as their extended network of partners in the academic, business, social and environmental communities, including Rhode Island videographers, composers, cartoonists, Brown University’s Center for Environmental Studies and more. For the URI community, the RI Sea Grant, the Coastal Resources Center, the Graduate School of Oceanography, the Harrington School of Communication and Media, the Cancer Prevention Research Center, the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, and the Coastal Institute all assisted with this comprehensive website creation.

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