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Climate-related goals, timelines in Rhode Island delayed due to COVID-19

Though some climate-related initiatives are advancing as planned, others stalled, in limbo

By
Metro Editor
Wednesday, December 2, 2020
A waterbody with fallen leaves surrounded by trees

During much of the past year, funding streams, legislation and new climate initiatives have stalled, largely due to the effects of the pandemic.

Despite progress made on some Rhode Island environmental initiatives, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused legislative delays and funding concerns regarding climate policy.

Dawn King, senior lecturer in environment and society at the University, believes that the pandemic has put climate policy in the Ocean State “on the back burner.”

While only time will tell the true effects of the pandemic on climate change initiatives, “there were basically no votes” on environmental policies or initiatives this session, King said, citing the Environment Council of R.I.’s biennial report card.

The 2019-2020 Green Report Card evaluates the progress state lawmakers and administrations have made in the fight against climate change and climate injustice. This year, the report stated that, “during two years in which the need for action was clearer than ever, both the administration and the General Assembly failed to take concrete steps toward environmental protection and climate justice in Rhode Island.”

According to the report, many bills that would have reduced carbon emissions and provided more clean energy solutions for the state — including the Economic and Climate Resilience Act — did not make it out of committee. Other bills, such as the Act on Climate 2020 Bill, did not receive hearings before the 2020 legislative session was suspended abruptly due to the pandemic.

This year, instead of awarding letter grades to Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration and to General Assembly members based on bill votes, the report issued “incompletes” to both. To warrant these “incompletes,” the report explains that “Rhode Island’s legislature has largely failed to consider important legislation beyond the state budget and pandemic response.” 

Raimondo’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Some state representatives agree with ECRI’s assessment. “It seems likely that by the end of the year, we will have made it through a whole session, 2 years, without passing substantial environmental legislation and without addressing the urgency of climate change in any meaningful way,” Representative Rebecca Kislak (D – District 4, Providence) wrote in an email to The Herald.

Despite these significant delays, Rep. Kislak added that she remains “hopeful that the new year, new session and new colleagues will help us move forward and address the pressing environmental issues facing us.”

This past year, though, the General Assembly “failed to vote on the lone environmental budget item: the biennial green bond ballot measure,” the report stated, adding that green bonds are reliably well-supported and vital to R.I.’s environmental initiatives.

Instead, “the General Assembly did not approve and didn’t put any of those bond questions on the ballot,” said Elizabeth Stone ’96, programs and policy in the director’s office at R.I. Department of Environmental Management. “They kind of punted, saying that they were likely to hold a special election.” 

According to Stone, voters normally would have voted on questions about bonds for green infrastructure and for environmental projects, but the pandemic has caused the approval of this funding to be delayed.

This setback is significant because that particular bond would have been a “critical” investment in the fight against climate change, said Terrence Gray, deputy director for environmental protection at RIDEM. He hopes that it still will be. While there is some discussion about holding the special election in the spring, it is still “in flux,” he said. Ultimately, its fate depends on whether or not the election is authorized in the budget, and when the budget ultimately gets passed.

Leah Bamberger, director of the office of sustainability for the City of Providence, also has to wrestle with the negative effects that COVID-19 has had on the funding for environmental initiatives.

“There are fiscal impacts that the City is grappling with,” and reduced staff time and capacity have “certainly slowed down progress,” she wrote in an email to The Herald. 

The pandemic has delayed other state climate-related policies, Gray said. For instance, the Transportation and Climate Initiative is a regional collaboration among 12 states — including R.I. — and the District of Columbia that aims to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector. According to the TCI website, “more than one third of all carbon emissions come from the transportation sector.”

In spring of 2020, the 13 jurisdictions were slated to sign a memorandum of understanding to confirm participation in the initiative, but “that was right when COVID hit in April,” Gray said. With this delayed timeline, a final memorandum of understanding is anticipated for the end of this calendar year, he added.

Gray said that this revised plan “hasn’t impacted the overall schedule; it just impacted that particular milestone,” but that it is still “one instance where things changed a little bit as a result of COVID.”

King believes that many states, including R.I., are waiting for federal Green New Deal legislation before passing more climate-related bills of their own. “States don’t want to necessarily pass climate change policies if they’re not getting any support from the federal government,” she said. “Rhode Island doesn’t want to pass a carbon tax if Connecticut and Massachusetts aren’t going to, because that just means people will drive across the border to get their gas.” 

Additionally, King doesn’t know how “on-track” the R.I. government was with environmental deadlines and goals before COVID-19 began to cause more widespread delays. “It’s not like R.I. was going full speed ahead on any particular big-scale implementation project,” she said. Neither Raimondo’s office nor RIDEM responded to requests for comment on the claim. 

This lack of results, King argued, comes not from a dearth of ideas, but rather from a lack of pointed, concrete action. “For four years, we’ve been in a bit of a standstill,” King said. “We pass really cool goals, but we’re not really putting the funding or the time and energy to achieving those goals quite yet.”

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