On July 3 Governor Lincoln Chafee signed legislation to create a nine-member Climate Change Council made up of different directors of state agencies. This council would assess the causes, prevent further damage, and prepare for the coming effects of climate change.
“In Rhode Island we are particularly vulnerable to the damages of climate change: sea levels rising, severe weather, and droughts,” Chafee said yesterday when interviewed at the Warwick Library.
In February, under executive order, the council was formed and compelled to create a report on the circumstance for the state and recommendations for solutions. The group first met in March to begin compiling research. They published their final report that included findings as well as recommendations concerning climate change in June.
Janet Coit, director of the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and who will also chair the council for the upcoming meeting, believes that agency collaboration is necessary. She was glad to see Chafee back legislation that would not only create the council, but also acknowledges state agencies’ responsibility in confronting the issues of climate change.
“This legislation is fantastic. It provides sanction and continuity to what we have been doing to combat climate change. It also highlights the opportunity and necessity of confronting adaptation issues. This issue affects more than just the environment, but also commerce, tourism, infrastructure and energy. Every state agency should be concerned and this legislation will make them consider these issues moving forward,” Coit said in a telephone interview yesterday.
The many effects of climate change have been documented in Rhode Island, like the increase of severe weather occurrences: Tropical Storm Arthur for example. There has been coastal erosion. Sea levels have been rising and will continue to do so. In the Northeast, sea levels are expected to rise three to four times faster than the rest of the world. In Rhode Island alone, sea levels are estimated to rise three to five feet by 2050. Similarly, the sea temperature is rising, allowing southern species to migrate and disrupt the ecosystem of Narragansett Bay.
Besides the issues pertaining to the environment, these changes also play a big role in the economy. A 2012 U.S. Geological Study found that with just a foot-and-a-half increase in the sea levels along the eastern coast would expose $6 trillion worth of property.
Coit said, “With 400 miles worth of coastline, we are particularly susceptible to the damages of climate change. I think Rhode Islanders are sensitive to the fact that there is a lot of power in the ocean and it has people’s attention.”
She mentioned that throughout the council’s research many of the testimonials came from individuals living alongside riverbanks. She said many people forget that rising sea levels affect all bodies of water and a lot of flooding that occurs in Rhode Island is along rivers.
Grover Fugate, executive director for the Coastal Resources Management Council and who served on the Climate Change Council, said, “We have already seen severe coastal erosion alongside rising waters. Only more can be expected with rising sea levels. We have a lot of problem solving and planning to do.”
Moving forward, the Climate Change Council is working not only on identifying the causes of these changes, but preparing the state for the changes; how Rhode Island can adapt to the inevitable climate change.
Fugate said, “Now we are seeing little but harmful changes. The effects from climate change are happening faster than anyone expected. Rhode Island was doing a lot of good work, but with the council we have a way in which we can coordinate and make sure we are not duplicating efforts, we can help each other, and our efforts will be more cost effective that way.”
The legislation, sponsored by Senator William J. Conley Jr. and Representative Arthur Handy, also created a 13-member general advisory board and a nine-member science and technical advisory board. These advisory boards would ensure that the Climate Change Council would have the proper means through which to research and implement solutions throughout the state. The advisory boards would also assist in reaching out to numerous communities.
Fugate said, “We are a small state. We are fragmented and many of the issues are best addressed at a local or even individual level. It is the best way for our society to figure out the issues and take the opportunity to deal with them on a realistic scale.”
The council will also work closely with public institutions. The council is looking to universities in particular to help with research on causes and effects, communication and policy changes.
“These institutions have the ability to drive information and action,” Coit said. “They can research, put the word out there and help us make changes.”
The council has already been in contact with Brown University, the University of Rhode Island and Roger Williams University.
Fugate said, “We are the ‘Ocean State.’ We have an ocean economy. We need to work to make sure our way of life remains.”
The council will hold a public meeting on Wednesday, July 16, at DEM on 235 Promenade St., Providence, Room 300. The meeting is at 1:30 p.m. and open to the public. For more information on the council or to read their final report from June, visit www.planning.ri.gov/statewideplanning/climate.