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Storms highlight need for climate resiliency in R.I.

Climate change threats drive push for improved infrastructure, environmental justice

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The fallout of Tropical Storm Henri and post-tropical cyclone Ida, including major flooding and power outages across Rhode Island, have contributed to greater efforts over the past few months to cope with the dangers of climate change as they underscore the increasing threat that climate change-related disasters pose to the state.

Henri, which made landfall in Rhode Island Aug. 22 and left tens of thousands of people without power, was the first tropical cyclone to hit the Ocean State since 1991. On Sept. 2, less than two weeks later, flooding from Ida left 43 people dead in the mid-Atlantic region  before submerging roads in the southern part of the state.

Concerns over Rhode Island’s potentially-flooded future have led to calls for building resiliency across the state in order to protect residents from the extreme weather events that are expected to become commonplace in the coming decades. Climate resiliency predominantly measures the ability of infrastructure to withstand climate-related changes such as rising seas and increased storm intensity.

The Ocean State will experience much more damaging and dangerous floods in coming decades as seas rise and extreme weather events intensify, according to Baylor Fox-Kemper, professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences at the University and a coordinating lead author of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report. Fox-Kemper said that by the end of the century, “one-in-one-hundred-year” floods may occur annually or faster. 

Past greenhouse gas emissions have ensured that some amount of sea level rise is already locked in, underscoring the necessity of developing climate resiliency, according to Fox-Kemper. “It is pretty sure … that we will see sea level rise of just shy of a foot by 2050. That’s pretty much regardless of what we do,” he said. “There is no amount of greenhouse gas reductions that will decrease that amount of sea level rise.”

In its Feb. 2021 report “Towards a Resilient Providence,” the Providence Resilience Partnership demonstrated the necessity of improving the state’s ability to cope with the climate crisis.

The PRP is a network of business leaders, academics and nonprofits dedicated to developing resilience within the City, according to Curt Spalding, a professor at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and a senior advisor to the partnership. The report calls for the creation of an umbrella agency that would bind together disparate resilience efforts taking place across the state.

Paul Tencher, senior advisor and strategic consultant for the PRP, said that the recent storms were yet more evidence of the need to develop resiliency. “This is the new normal,” he said. “Even if we solve climate change in the next ten years, we will still have the effects of everything that’s happened over the last two hundred years to deal with.”

Both Spalding and Tencher said that the organization’s approach recognizes the need to build social resilience in addition to physical infrastructure. “Social … and environmental justice and infrastructure are two sides of the same coin. It’s impossible to focus on infrastructure without focusing on environmental justice in Providence and beyond,” Tencher said.

“There’s a tendency to think about infrastructure and how to protect the status quo,” Spalding added. “We need to honor the fact that different parts of the community are more vulnerable and have different histories and different challenges.” 

“Do you just build infrastructure, or do you build infrastructure that addresses social vulnerabilities at the same time?” he asked. “You can’t do it just for the rich people. You’ve got to do it for everybody.”

Spalding said that the PRP’s current projects include restoring the Seekonk River watershed and developing stormwater management infrastructure along the Woonasquatucket River, a river corridor that the report found to be especially vulnerable to flooding. 

Although the PRP was intended to be a catalyst for community-based resilience programs, Spalding added, “there will need to be some significant state investment,” which he said may be impeded by a lack of funds at the state level.

Michael Healey, the chief public affairs officer at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, agreed that funding was one barrier to developing resiliency in the state. “Prioritizing funding for critical projects is critical to the state’s success,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. “Governor McKee is committed to working with the RI General Assembly and all stakeholders to ensure that we face and meet the challenges posed by climate change.”

Recent years have seen moves toward building resiliency on the state level, Healey added, such as the creation of a “statewide climate resilience action strategy” in 2018, as increased funding of climate resilience programs through the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank.

According to Healey, social resilience is also being taken into consideration by the state. Resilience “is equally a challenge for infrastructure and human health,” he wrote. “The RI Department of health’s Health Equity Zone program has been incorporating climate change into its work with underserved populations.”

Additionally, Tencher said that he hopes that the passage of the federal infrastructure bill will allow the City to compete for grants to build resilient infrastructure.

The two recent storms, as well as extreme heat, wildfires and other weather events over the summer, have created a new awareness of the urgency of the situation, according to Spalding. He is optimistic that this new awareness will boost support for resilience in the state and aid the City’s ability to deal with the challenges that lie ahead. 

“This City has a history of being able to change,” he said. “And fundamentally, resilience is about building a capacity to change, and doing it in a positive way that is socially beneficial.”

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