Reframing Climate Legislation: Lessons from Rhode Island

Almost every year since 2008, a quixotic state representative in Rhode Island has introduced the “Climate Solutions Act,” which lays out a series of targets for emissions reductions in the tiny state.  Each year, the bill has died in committee.

It wasn’t that Representative Art Handy, a Democrat in a state with about 90 percent of its legislature on the blue side of the aisle, was in the minority party.  (Full disclosure: Representative Handy has worked with climate stakeholders across the state, including with Brown University, where I teach.) In fact, Democrats have all but one small row of six seats in the 70-some seat legislature.  It wasn’t a hostile committee he had to make it through either—Handy himself chaired the House Environment Committee. And it wasn’t that Rhode Island would be way out in front of other states: Rhode Island’s neighbor Massachusetts passed identical wording to the Rhode Island bill in 2008, establishing a program that with other legislation is credited with lowering the state’s emissions, bringing over a billion dollars in economic benefits, and generating more than 12,000 new jobs.  Another neighbor, Connecticut, has also passed climate targets and begun statewide efforts to reduce its emissions.

But Rhode Island’s legislative leadership remained consistently concerned with the failing economy, and climate legislation was seen as both a burden on business and underfunded and understaffed state agencies.  So each year, Handy’s Climate Solutions Act was “held for further consideration” in committee, failing to muster the approval of the leadership in the legislature’s extremely centralized power structure.

Reframing Climate Legislation as Risk Management

After yet another disappointing year in 2013, Handy had a new idea in mind for the future.  He thought, given major storm-driven river flooding in March 2010, and the impacts of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, that preparing the state for future disasters was a much easier sell in cash-strapped “Little Rhody.”  His vision was that preparing for rising sea levels and more intense storms should become “business as usual” in state agencies (an idea recently echoed by Hank Paulson), and that climate impacts should be considered in every state and local bond issue and infrastructure project. 

In early descriptions of his new approach, Handy repeatedly told the story of a part of his district where several public and commercial buildings and their parking lots and service roads have created a vast nearly continuous swath of pavement and asphalt.  His concern was that this and other similarly poorly planned areas upstream from his district would create hazardous flooding, so Handy imagined a complete rethinking for the future of the area.  This, he reasoned, would create a better long-term business climate than an area where utilities, services, or businesses might be knocked out unexpectedly by weather impacts that could have been prevented.

Handy’s new idea for the 2014 session was to wrap adaptation efforts around the mitigation targets, which would be sensible parts of an effort to save families and businesses money with greater efficiency. Since the state produces none of its own fossil fuels, every dollar spent on heating oil, natural gas, electricity and gasoline flows quickly out of the state. Money spent on insulating homes, installing wind, solar and geothermal creates immediate jobs in the state, generates payroll taxes, and staunches the flow of cash out of the state for fossil fuels. Under this way of thinking, climate change preparation and emissions reductions all become the logical and responsible thing to do.

Passing the Resilient Rhode Island Act

The bill, now renamed the Resilient Rhode Island Act, includes both adaptation and mitigation efforts. It inspired Governor Lincoln Chafee to issue an executive order in late February, 2014 creating an Executive Climate Change Council, which with great leadership reviewed efforts across state agencies and issued a report and ambitious recommendations in record time. 

Meanwhile, two state senators drafted their own climate legislation, including both mitigation and adaptation goals, and the administration, Brown University, and others worked to submit amendments to strengthen the bill.   The bill was amended and the senate bill eventually was renamed the Resilient Rhode Island Act. The bill passed out of committees in both houses, and was approved on the floor of both chambers last week. Governor Chafee’s office has signaled that he will proudly sign the bill, as an important legacy achievement of his time in office. 

The bill makes Governor Chafee’s executive coordinating council of agency heads permanent.  It creates an advisory board for that council, consisting of stakeholders with expertise across the state economy and institutions.  And it creates a science and technology advisory board, with expert faculty and staff from universities, environmental laboratories and agencies in the state. The bill also includes some ambitious mitigation targets for Rhode Island. 

The full story of the 2014 legislative session is a longer one for another article, involving a campaign to develop the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 with Representative Handy and support from the team out of Brown University on which I participated. 

Aligning Climate, Business, and Economic Goals

Given this year’s legislative effort and the targets for the region in past agreements under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and another agreement of governors with their Canadian counterparts, President Obama’s recent move to have the EPA reduce power plant emissions by 30 percent by 2030 was no problem for the director of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, Janet Coit: “Nothing I’ve heard so far is concerning because of the steps we’re already taking,” she said. 

For once, political logic lines up with best practices. The lesson from Rhode Island in the 2014 legislative session is that climate mitigation and adaptation need to be considered together right from the start. For planning at the local and state level, there is little doubt that this is the logical way to confront the dual needs of climate change—for immediate protection against the storms and for the dramatic decarbonization of our economy and our institutions. Immediate and longer-term climate solutions are all business solutions in a resilient economy.