Wild weather fluctuations rooted in climate change, experts and officials say

The Cranston Herald ·

A classic New England joke advises that if you don’t like the weather, one simply has to wait a minute for different weather to occur.

Anecdotally speaking, Rhode Islanders are well aware of the region’s seemingly moody nature. Sometimes we have blizzards in April, and sometimes (like the past few weeks) we bookend multiple sub-zero windchill days fitting for January and February with 60-degree, short sleeve weather not normally seen until late May.

The hard reality is that these rapid and extreme fluctuations in weather are not much of a laughing matter at all. When you look at the big picture, Rhode Island’s recent bouts of strange weather are simply one small piece of a much larger puzzle that highlight the effects of comprehensive global climate change.

While some top level politicians feel it prudent to conclude that recent stretches of extremely cold temperatures in some parts of the United States is proof that global warming caused by human fossil fuel activity is simply a hoax, top level officials in Rhode Island are in the midst of an all hands on deck approach to try and prepare the state to handle the very real consequences that will occur – and are already occurring – as a result of climate change.

“We're not debating why climate change is happening, we're dealing with the changes we're already seeing here on the ground,” said Shaun O’Rourke, Rhode Island’s Chief Resiliency Officer – a title that was bestowed upon him in 2017 by Governor Gina Raimondo, which tasked him to come up with the state’s first widespread plan to bring together all stakeholders to address the issue.

O’Rourke is not a random recycling enthusiast who stumbled into an appointment from the governor. His day job is leading the stormwater and climate resiliency portion of the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank. In other words, O’Rourke doesn’t have the luxury to pretend that climate change isn’t occurring – he has to work every day to help communities fund projects that react to or protect against its inevitable damages.

Along with many individuals working within 12 state agencies that make up the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), O’Rourke developed the statewide plan to address climate change, called Resilient Rhody, over nine months and 10 roundtable meetings throughout the state and released the final report last July.

The report lists six primary observable manifestations of climate change in the Ocean State, such as rising sea levels, air and water temperature fluctuations, changes in local biodiversity and the increase of highly intense rainstorms. These manifestations, the report indicates, pose serious threats to the state’s economy, infrastructure and daily lives of its residents.

“We need to be able to effectively communicate those impacts to our communities,” O’Rourke said.

Evidence of climate change in Rhode Island

Last October, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse visited students at Pilgrim High School’s Political Involvement Club. He spoke about the work his wife did while working towards her PhD that involved studying a species of winter flounder that preyed upon a mud shrimp found in Narragansett Bay. The flounder helped support commercial fishermen during the colder months, but just a couple decades later, conditions in the Bay have changed to a point where the flounder are all but gone.

“Narragansett Bay has turned over to a new ecosystem,” Whitehouse told the students.

Changes to the state’s biodiversity, such as Whitehouse’s example, have potential to cause serious harm to commercial and recreational fishing industries in Rhode Island, which, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s most recent report, had an approximate economic value of $440 million and supports nearly 10,000 jobs.

The University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Institute keeps constant tabs on the state’s watershed and changes occurring due to climate change. In their annual Watershed Reports, they conclude that “Climate change is already happening in the Narragansett Bay region and will intensify in the years to come,” listing rising sea levels, increasing water temperature and the increased amount of rainfall from storms as the three biggest factors to be concerned about.

They list an increase to the Bay’s surface water temperature of about 3 degrees on average, with an increase in the winter months of closer to 4 degrees. As reported by the Resilient Rhody report, air temperatures in Rhode Island have increased by more than 3 degrees since the early 20th century, with the warmest year on record occurring in 2016.

According to Resilient Rhody, intense rainfall events in New England have increased by 71 percent since 1958, and the annual amount of precipitation has increased by more than 10 inches since 1930. Of the 20 most costly hurricanes to hit the United States, 17 of them have occurred since 2000. In 2017 and 2018 alone, the country suffered $300 billion in damages from climate-related disasters.

“It’s not that it’s falling consistently more throughout the year, it’s that we're getting higher intensity, higher frequency storms in between long droughts,” O’Rourke said. “That makes it difficult to manage the water.”

Stormwater runoff is listed as one of the primary causes of water degradation and pollution in the state, which is exacerbated through particularly intense rainstorms as we have been seeing more consistently. Flooding poses a direct threat to critical infrastructure such as dams, drinking water plants and wastewater treatment facilities, due to their locations at lower elevation. Indirectly, flooding can cause erosion and jeopardize structural integrity of roads and bridges.

Residents of Warwick need look no further than the 2010 super storms that inundated its wastewater treatment facility with unprecedented amounts of floodwater, and caused around $100 million in damages statewide, to see a prime example of the calamitous possibilities of too much rain.

After the disastrous flooding, Warwick invested $20 million – much of which came from insurance payments, but also included state and federal disaster relief funding – to beef up the protective levee around the facility and ensure it would be protected even from a catastrophic 500-year storm. It’s the kind of forward thinking that O’Rourke is hoping more communities will undergo to prevent future incidents, and he pointed to Warren’s preemptive improvements to their wastewater facility as another prime example.

“Some have been proactive,” he said. “The majority of the coastal communities have been leading the way and are aware of the impacts of climate change. There's also plenty of communities that I don't think have effectively looked at this all that deeply.”

Besides heavy rain, droughts that occur in between storms also cause concern, as they cause trees to decay and leave them susceptible to high wind storms – like the micro and macro bursts that have occurred in recent years that caused significant electrical infrastructural damage throughout the state and have knocked power out for hundreds of thousands of Rhode Islanders.

“Pretty much the entire state of Rhode Island is in a wind envelope,” said O’Rourke. “We're susceptible to increasing winds from the coast and inland storms across the entire state. They're having major impacts.”

O’Rourke said that the major goal of climate resiliency is to line up projects in the short and long term that can be initiated by communities to shore up infrastructural preparations to meet the challenges caused by climate change. Going along with this, he sees collaboration between municipal and state governments to establish sustainable revenue sources to fund such projects as essential.

He praised the ballot initiative that was approved by voters this past November, which included $5 million for coastal resiliency and public access projects, the first of its kind in the history of the state that specifically mentioned climate resiliency. He said that the state was targeting an RFP for grant program to be finalized within this calendar year so that communities can begin applying and beginning resiliency projects.

“The Infrastructure Bank has elevated as the hub of infrastructure financing throughout the state,” he said. “Now that we're including climate resilience…We’re trying to find those ways for sustainable and sufficient financing of projects that we know need done around the state.”

The dogmatism of climate change denial

Some may be asking how there exists a strong percentage of people in the United States that still think climate change is a hoax, or that the dangers posed by these changes have been wildly blown out of proportion.

Each year, Yale University conducts a study on the public perception of climate change, which includes questions regarding their thoughts on whether or not climate change is occurring, how concerned they are about the impacts of climate change and what policies they support or oppose regarding environmental issues.

In 2018, nationally, 70 percent of people in the United States believed that global warming was occurring, but only 61 percent of people were concerned about its consequences. Forty eight percent of people felt little or no concern at all that global warming would cause them harm, and 49 percent felt that global warming was not harming anybody in the country right now, nor would it harm them in 25 years.

Rhode Island varies in terms of its perceptions, according to the study. As a whole, 71 percent of the state believes global warming is occurring, but that number fluctuates by county. Newport County, for example, had 74 percent of people believing (4 percent above national average), while Kent County had 67 percent of people that believed global warming was occurring (3 percent below the national average). A full 30 percent of people in Rhode Island believe global warming is simply the result of natural changes, and nearly half the state (48 percent) doesn’t believe global warming is causing any harm to people now, nor will it cause harm in the next 25 years.

So how can this be, when scientific predictions forecast 2.2 feet of sea level rise by 2040, and nine feet by 2100? Surely, such a drastic increase in sea level rise would have calamitous results for communities throughout Rhode Island.

Sunshine Menezes, Executive Director of the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, said that for a lot of people, climate change is simply not an issue that affects their daily lives, and therefore they are less inclined to dig into the science – data which is far too often presented in overly complex ways.

“There is still a sizable percentage of people in the country who are kind of in the middle. They're not really sure what's going on,” Menezes said. “For some of those people, it's them saying, 'I don't get this, therefore it's probably not true.' There are people not paying that much attention and then there's people who say, 'I don't get this and therefore I'm not going to pay attention to it.' Until they feel more personally affected by this, they're not going to pay attention.”

In addition, global climate change has become a political wedge issue rather than a simple matter of scientific fact versus fiction.

“That has to do with a lot of things. It certainly has to do with a lot of misinformation that has purposefully been spread by a variety of groups for the last 20 years about climate change,” Menezes said. “Unfortunately, it really has turned out that because we live in such politically polarized times, people start to gather their ideas of how their 'group' thinks about a certain issue. It becomes dogma rather than fact-based decision making.”

Menezes said effective communication – from public officials and from journalists, especially – was important to help bring sides closer together towards a better understanding of the issue. Such is the goal of the Metcalf Institute, which connects journalists with scientists while performing research.

“There are a lot of pieces to this puzzle and I think and hope that even if someone right now thinks that climate change is relevant to them, it's just a matter of finding out how to most effectively engage that person in a conversation to get past that groupthink that I mentioned before and dive into the specifics that make it relevant to them,” she said.

Menezes said that debates over whether or not climate change is happening are a waste of precious time the planet does not have – but that policy debates about what we can do to best address its effects are worthwhile and important.

“We have one planet to live on at this point. No one has figured out how to live on Mars yet, so we have to figure this out,” she said. “I'm going to say no, we're not past the point of no return, but we need to make changes immediately to make Earth in general and Rhode Island in particular a place where our grandchildren can live comfortably.”