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Students help pass climate bill into law

R.I. law aims to cut carbon emissions with greater energy efficiency, public transit investments

On Aug. 2, Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 signed the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 into law — a climate change bill that had originally been drafted by Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology J. Timmons Roberts, 15 Brown students and a group of consultants.

The law’s main goals are to reduce the state’s carbon emissions and to adapt to the consequences of climate change by creating the EC4, or the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Committee.

President Christina Paxson provided financial resources to Roberts and his team in January, and throughout the summer to work on their proposal.

But the original bill that the team proposed was not the version signed into law. “We didn’t have consensus with the Senate and the membership of the legislature,” said Rep. Arthur Handy, D-Cranston, the bill’s lead sponsor.

Instead, after reviewing the bill, the Senate developed its own climate change bill — which later became the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 ­­­— seeking to address the same state issues.

Roberts said he felt the Senate’s initial draft of the bill was“inadequate” because it did not have a solid structure for moving ahead, due to weak short-term targets. It also had no measures taken for adaptation to climate change, he added.

During a Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture hearing after the Senate climate bill was proposed, Roberts outlined seven steps to improve the bill.

Meg Kerr, treasurer of the Rhode Island Blueways Alliance and a key consultant on the bill, said the Senate bill’s first iteration “didn’t include the need for consistent scientific advice to the (EC4), and it also didn’t emphasize any public involvement the way we had in our original bill.”

After weeks of lobbying, negotiating with senators and working with Senate sponsors, activists successfully pushed the Senate to make amendments to its bill, Kerr said.

Students were vital in revising the bill and getting it signed into law, said Abel Collins ’00, program manager for the Rhode Island chapter of the Sierra Club and media manager for the bill.

“There’s certain points in time of the year when bills start to lose momentum, and I think they really helped keep the momentum,” Collins said.

Though “climate change is … a bit scary and daunting,” Brown students brought optimism and a “can-do attitude” to the team, Kerr said.

Jan Reitsma, special adviser for policy and legislative affairs to Chafee, also said students were an essential force behind the bill.

“Brown students were very active advocates and knowledgeable about the issues and were great contributors to the success of the legislation,” he said.

Students involved in the lawmaking process were enthusiastic about the environmental impact the law would have on Rhode Island.

Instead of having an “apocalyptic view of climate change” that hinders progress, the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 strives to be realistic and effective in its goals, said David Chodakewitz ’15, one of the bill’s student developers.

The EC4 is currently working with its advisory committees on strategic plans for how to reach targets set by the bill, including an 80 percent reduction of carbon emission levels by 2050, Collins said.

Changes to come will include making more investments in public transit, reducing landfills, supporting greater energy efficiency programs that use sources of renewable energy and considering impacts of climate change when creating structural plans, Roberts said.

Considering the complications posed by erosion and flooding are necessary in planning ahead, Reitsma said.

The bill is at the forefront of efforts to address climate change, he said, adding that this is especially important since Rhode Island is a coastal state.



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