A Rising Tide

Much to the dismay of environmentalists, progressives, and worried citizens, the national political climate remains frozen on climate change while ice caps melt. Under the shadow of the global inability to address the issue, alarmed and alert Americans are struggling to restore and sustain their environment. But if the effects of climate change seem distant, Rhode Island’s experience is proof of the contrary. The country’s smallest state could become an important case study in the United States’ efforts to fight climate change.

Rhode Island has already suffered the effects of a regional climate shift. A 2012 report to then-Governor Lincoln Chafee reveals that, as a result of new extreme weather patterns, “communities in Rhode Island have been hit by at least six major storms…which overwhelmed sewer and storm water systems, caused power outages, damaged roads and bridges, inundated neighborhoods, and caused extensive property damage.” These warning signs are particularly ominous for activists and citizens of the aptly named Ocean State. “[Rhode Island] has only 39 towns, 21 of which are coastal communities,” observes Elizabeth Stone, a coordinator at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “So when you start talking about things like sea level rise…and increasing intensity of storms, there’s such a vulnerability for so many of our cities and towns.”

Faced with the imminent effects of climate change, Rhode Islanders have moved to research and support genuine solutions. According to a report by the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment, Rhode Island can slash its projected flood rates in half, drastically slow down temperature rise, and take huge steps to combat storm risk through mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The report suggests that state-level legislative action to proactively control emissions could accomplish these aims, and accordingly, activists have catalyzed around such a plan. Drafters of the Energize RI Act, a proposed piece of climate legislation, demanded that the state put a price on fossil fuels entering the state, thereby generating new revenue for infrastructure and creating jobs. Though the bill failed to get through the legislature, the grassroots effort behind the Energize RI Act demonstrates an eagerness among many Rhode Islanders to lead the transition to efficient and clean technologies.

With viable solutions on the table, it may seem a bit odd that the state isn’t taking action. But Rhode Island, a heavily Democratic state, also exemplifies how local economic concerns continue to cloud perspectives on climate change. Brown University Professor J. Timmons Roberts, an environmentalist who helped draft the Energize RI Act, argues that although the state’s economy is beginning to rev its engines, “there’s great cautiousness about anything that might scare away companies or employers.” As such, many politicians and citizens often focus on direct costs to business, rather than acknowledging the more pervasive, long-term threat that climate change poses to the economic sector. Throw in the usual suspects — ignorance on climate change, fossil fuel interests, and fears of an energy shortage — and it’s no surprise that environmentalism remains on the sidelines. The obstacles toward progress that Rhode Island faces resemble those on the national scale, but the Ocean State has a critical advantage available to small states and localities: a strong sense of community.

Those who have dipped their toes in Rhode Island politics understand the state’s intimacy. Unlike on the national level, individuals and local communities have voices that count and carry influence. The Resilient Rhode Island Act, led by a coalition of local environmental groups and leaders, represents the deep potential for community engagement. The coalition behind the legislation succeeded by grounding its efforts in Rhode Island’s specific experience with climate change, maintaining that the legislative and cultural battle “will be won in individual communities,” not on a national or global scale. The grassroots run deeper still. While bipartisan dysfunction and quarrels over scientific validity condemn climate change to inaction in Congress, people like Pieter Roos of the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) are circumventing national debates on climate change to focus on tangible efforts to protect local communities. For Roos, the emphasis is on smaller-scale measures and a pragmatic approach. The NRF’s upcoming conference sets aside the abstracts of climate change and doubles down on “what can be done to protect historic buildings, landscapes, and neighborhoods from the increasing threat of inundation.” These personal and communal approaches to climate change capture what the nation desperately needs and what Rhode Island is well-suited to promote.

Local action in Rhode Island will have impacts far beyond the Ocean State’s borders. As a tight-knit, innovative, and vulnerable state, Rhode Island is in a critical position to take leadership, with both national and international consequences. The rest of the world is keeping a watchful eye on the United States, and in the face of political deadlock, state solutions represent the key to long-awaited action. “The hope is that we can blaze a trail, that we can gain the benefits of much greater efficiency,” said Roberts. As local communities recognize that pragmatic solutions to climate change exist, they embody the idea that change begins at home.

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Art by: Ala Lee