Bill aims to curb R.I. carbon emissions

Resilient Rhode Island Act would attempt to make state more energy-efficient and create jobs

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2014

J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the legislation he crafted with the help of Brown students and outside consultants getting passed.

The Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 — developed by Brown students working with a faculty member and outside consultants — was introduced to the Rhode Island General Assembly by Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, last week. The University provided funding to support the legislation, which outlines a strategy to lower Rhode Island’s carbon emissions and prepare the state’s infrastructure for impending climate change.

“It really is a ground-up, original piece of legislation,” said J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology, who helped coordinate the efforts of the students and consultants working on the legislation’s development. A total of 15 students worked or will work on developing and promoting the bill, splitting the work over winter break, this semester and the summer, he said.

In addition to students, two outside consultants — Ken Payne, Rhode Island Food Policy Council chair and former policy analyst for the state Senate, and Meg Kerr, treasurer of the Rhode Island Blueways Alliance — have also helped write the bill. In order to draft a successful bill, it is important to have people like Payne, who are familiar with Rhode Island’s unique political climate and “really know how to write complex pieces of legislation,” Roberts said.

Now that the bill has been introduced to the General Assembly, the students are “trying to build support throughout the state,” an effort that will continue through the summer, said David Chodakewitz ’15, one of the students collaborating on the bill. Earning the trust and support of community members is very important, he said, adding that the potential for economic revitalization through the development of a green-energy industry is an important advantage of the bill’s proposals.

“It’s not just reaching out to legislators,” said Cody Zeger ’14, a student who worked on the legislation, adding that efforts have been made to incorporate the input of leaders of faith-based organizations and local businesses into the legislation. The first draft of the bill represents the culmination of many consultations with a wide variety of stakeholders.

“I think it is great that Brown has taken the initiative to take a leadership role in this issue,” said Abel Collins ’00, program manager for the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club. The communication between the University, students, faculty members, consultants and local organizations “brings a lot more people into the collaborative process of getting the bill going,” he said, noting that by involving more people, the bill will have a bigger base of support.

Handy has been unsuccessfully trying to pass legislation to lower the state’s carbon emissions since 2008, and the new bill couples that initiative with a plan to help Rhode Island handle rising sea levels, more violent storms and more intense heat waves, Roberts said. “People are realizing that we have to get ahead of (climate change) before it deals a devastating blow to our state development,” he added.

The portion of the bill addressing possible adaptations for the state will “preemptively help Rhode Island make changes,” Zeger said, adding that it will be less expensive to adapt now than to address climate change-related incidents when they happen. Nobody is calling for Rhode Island to immediately overhaul its current infrastructure, he said — the bill is “all about planning this into the way that Rhode Island develops” in the future.

“The Sierra Club loves both parts — it’s a pretty ambitious bill,” Collins said. The legislation calls for state carbon emissions to be gradually cut to 85 percent below their 1990 levels by 2050, which is one of the most drastic proposed reductions in the country, Collins said. But he added that the proposed 25 percent reduction set as the target for 2025 should be a target for 2020. “We need to frontload the goals.”

Collins said the bill is necessary for Rhode Island’s future welfare, especially given the state’s extensive coastline.

“Communities are just sort of ignoring (climate change), … and that’s why people need this bill,” Collins said, adding that coastal communities “really need the state to be preparing.” But moving people and communities away from their coastal homes “is a very tricky issue,” he said. Despite the understandable discomfort people may have with the realities of rising sea levels, Collins said having a policy “where we can really look at these issues in more of an objective way, and less of an emotional (way), will really help the state address climate change.”

Preparing for climate change can also help confront the state’s unemployment rate, which is one of the highest in the country, Chodakewitz said. “There’s a whole economy there we could help create.”

Roberts said he was encouraged by Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s ’75 P’14 P’17 creation of the Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Council late last month. “The administration is eager to move on this issue,” he noted. The coordination of Rhode Island’s efforts to address climate change will be very important, he said. “We really think it is going to take almost every agency in the state.”

“This bill in and of itself does not get the job done — it sets the goals,” but the strategy by which the state can meet those targets still needs to be developed, Collins said.

“It also depends on the state of the economy,” Collins warned, noting that green energy initiatives are commonly delayed or dismissed during tough economic times. Massachusetts and Rhode Island were in a similar position to move forward with energy reform in 2008, Collins said, but Rhode Island chose not to and Massachusetts has since progressed to become a more energy-efficient state and seen the economic benefits of green industry.

Roberts said it was important to craft a bill that was affordable for the state government to implement. “It’s not free, but it will easily pay for itself” by avoiding costs associated with damaged infrastructure and saving money on energy costs, he said. Though it is often tough to predict the real effects of proposed pieces of legislation, Roberts said he is confident the Resilient Rhode Island Act will save money “in the long term and could be valuable in creating a hub of innovation.”

“I am cautiously optimistic,” he said, adding that he thinks there is potential for the bill to be passed this year.

Both Chodakewitz and Zeger also said they were optimistic about the bill’s passage, but noted that students and community members are prepared to continue promoting the piece of legislation, even if it takes years to pass.

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  1. Consensus has been reached, and we all know that science is done by consensus.

  2. Tom Bale '63 says:

    Now Brown is talking! Great news to hear faculty, students, and administration working with politics, trying to curb global warming, and prepare for the impact of climate change ahead. I wish the article had said more about the administration helping fund the legislative initiative. Things were looking very disheartening back in October when Brown turned aside the valiant efforts of Brown Divest Coal. I thought at the time President Paxson and the Corporation just don’t want to get involved in messy politics – which is absolutely essential if anything is to be done about climate change. Now look what is happening with the Resilient Rhode Island Act. My hat is off to Professor Roberts and his students. I hope the BDH will keep us posted as things progress. From my point of view Brown Divest Coal, while not convincing Brown to divest, deserve some credit for the high visibility created on campus for this looming global disaster, and for their insistence on the need to link the University with the political arena to push our recalcitrant legislators to do their duty.
    Now if only Brown’s example would rub off on a sister school, Penn. I wish they would get busy, and take on the backward government of my home state, PA, like Brown is doing with Rhode Island. Harvard should do the same with MA.

  3. Abel Collins says:

    It was a pleasure to be interviewed by Alexander for this article on such an important piece of legislation. You can help put pressure on lawmakers to get it passed this year. A good first step is sending them a message with this simple action alert:

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