Rhode Island Capitol Building
The Rhode Island Capitol in Providence. Credit: Bestbudbrian / Creative Commons

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This story originally appeared in EcoRI News and was republished with permission. EcoRI reports on environmental and social justice issues in southern New England.

Legislation to establish enforceable climate emission reduction targets for Rhode Island haven’t fared well in recent years. They are typically backed by a broad coalition of progressive groups and hearings are packed with supporters. But the bills rarely make it out of committee.

Although the urgency to address the climate crisis is as pressing as ever, the prospects this year are uncertain for House bill H5445 and Senate bill S0078.

On the national level, there’s a climate-friendly president who rejoined the Paris Agreement and embraced a goal of a 100% “clean energy” economy with net-zero emissions by 2050. Spending bills have already been passed to fund climate initiatives, so federal money should be flowing to states to address the crisis. 

But, according to the sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, Rhode Island has no plan to address the climate crisis while states with plans will most likely receive federal climate money.

“We have to be ready,” Carson said during the Feb. 26 hearing for the Act On Climate 2021 legislation. “I don’t want to see Rhode Island last in the region again.”

The bill moves the state’s current emissions reduction target from 80% by 2050 to 2040. The 45% reduction goal is moved from 2035 to 2030, and net-zero emissions must be achieved by 2050. Similar to last year’s bill of the same name, this year’s version also puts the responsibility on state agencies to enact plans established by the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council. The committee of state agency heads must also update those plans every five years.

The most controversial part of the updated legislation is a provision that makes emission reduction targets legally enforceable by allowing citizen lawsuits. Rep. Jason Knight, D-Barrington, stressed that the lawsuits don’t permit financial awards.

“This is not an avenue for some plaintiff to get a windfall in money from the state,” Knight said.

Although incoming governor Dan McKee hasn’t offered his environmental outlook, Carson noted that the law would make sure that efforts to address the climate crisis would move forward regardless of a governor’s position on the matter.

“This bill will be on the books, enforceable going forward for the next 30 years,” Carson said during the four-and-a-half-hour hearing. “We need something real and enforceable.”

Carson rebutted objections about costs before they were even voiced by opponents. She said the bill doesn’t require funding and that billions of dollars of real estate and tax revenue are at risk from flooding, sea-level rise, and severe storms. She noted the nearly yearlong economic shutdown experienced by Westerly after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Carson referenced new research showing that the true premiums for flood insurance may drive up costs for coastal property owners and drive down property values, threatening a lucrative stream of revenue for municipalities. She noted national trends such as Ford and General Motors pledging to shift their fleets to electric vehicles.

“It’s really time to put our pedal to the metal and implement these plans,” Carson said. “And I think the citizens of Rhode Island want to know that this plan is going to be implemented, and if not there are legal consequences.”

She referenced an October 2020 survey showing that Rhode Islanders ranked the climate crises the second most important issue after the coronavirus pandemic.

Other than the state’s environmental groups, the bill is supported by National Grid, the office of the general treasurer, the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, and the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island.

The bill’s proponents spoke of eroding beaches, dying birds and fish, and the economic benefits of transitioning to an economy focused on sustainability. They also noted that the legislation gives environmental-justice communities jobs and a say in climate planning.

Opponents focused on the costs of mandated actions. Lenette Forry-Menard, lobbyist for the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, noted that Rhode Island has the fourth-highest electricity bills in the country. She referred to state-funded studies suggesting that electrifying the heating and transportation sectors would require about 115 gigawatts of additional power. She claimed residents will be asked to pay at least $50,0000 to update their homes to meet the 80% reduction in climate emissions. 

“If we’re switching everything over to electricity, how do we do that?” Forry-Menard asked. “A requirement to meet the target is going to mean a cost, that may be valid, but a cost that has to be absorbed somehow.”

Supporters of the bill said the costs of making home energy improvements are much less than $50,000 and most will come with new financial incentives. They said the high cost Forry-Menard referenced speaks to the less common full-energy retrofit, which includes big-ticket items like replacing windows.

Dr. Victoria Leytin, an emergency room physician, had the most compelling testimony of the hearing. She called from the emergency room at Miriam Hospital in Providence. She said the climate crisis is causing the most suffering for people of color, the economically disadvantaged, and the elderly. She has treated people who can’t regulate their own temperature during heat waves and is seeing more tick-borne diseases. The climate crisis will be worse than the COVID-19 health pandemic, she said.

“I have announced multiple children of color dead due to asthma,” Leytin said. “And this is a societal failure. The pollution that triggers this disease is modifiable. We can do something about this. So it’s up to us. It’s up to you now to reduce the risk to these populations.”

Brian Moran, director of government affairs for the New England Convenience Store and Energy Marketers Association, objected to the citizen lawsuits and expected the bill to impose new costs on the more than 400 gas stations and minimarts he represents.

Some gas stations are already installing charging stations, he said, but most sell fossil fuels “because that’s what people want.”

Carson noted that there are no mandates in the bill about technologies or paths to adopt, but instead a call for a holistic look at all emissions. She said electric heat pumps and energy-efficient equipment are less expensive than Forry-Menard mentioned and they can be bought as heating and air-conditioning systems need replacement over the next 30 years.

“I just think we have to take the long view here and slowly transition to these types of systems,” Carson said.

Brown University professor Timmons Roberts noted that sea-level rise, extreme weather, storm surge, and flooding are going to cause billions in damages without action. The state’s 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act, which the bill amends, was based on 1999 data and should be updated to reflect the current science, he said.

The advocacy group Climate Action Rhode Island secured nearly 700 signatures, representing voters from every House and Senate district in the state, in support of the bill.

The House bill was held for further study. The Senate version of the bill is scheduled to be heard by the Committee on Environment and Agriculture on March 3 at 3:30 p.m.