PROVIDENCE - The Rhode Island Climate Change Commission, established in 2010 through legislation to reduce the risks of climate change across the state, has released its 2011-12 progress report. The 38-page document outlines the overall mission of the commission in assessing the state’s and municipalities’ needs in order to mitigate the present and future impacts of climate change.
“There’s a wide range of issues that need to be considered to protect lives, property and public resources from danger as our climate changes,” said Co-chair Senator Joshua B. Miller (Dist. 28 Cranston) “Our immediate goal is to prioritize initiatives and, by the end of the year, identify any legislative proposals that should be considered in the upcoming legislative session.”
The commission is led by Miller and fellow co-chair Representative Christopher R. Blazejewski (Dist. 2 Providence). The group split up into smaller working groups of local researchers and pertinent professionals; Infrastructure, led by Representative Arthur Handy (Dist. 18 Cranston), Natural Resources and Habitat, led by Senator Susan Sosnowski (Dist. 37 New Shoreham, South Kingstown), and Human Health and Welfare, led by Representative David A. Bennett.
The report summarizes the risks of climate change to the state, as well as points of weakness in infrastructure, from social and economical impacts to environmental vulnerabilities. For example, according to the report, average air temperatures in Rhode Island have increased 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit from 1905 to 2006, as well as rising four degrees at the surface of Narragansett Bay since the 1960s.
“The climatological sciences with increasing temporal and spatial accuracy project substantial future impacts upon Rhode Island, including stronger, more frequent hurricanes and Nor’easters, [and] greater frequency of other extreme weather events such as heat waves,” read the report. “Also scientifically observed and projected are rapid alterations to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, their structure and function, and the natural resource values they generate and sustain.”
Furthermore, average sea level in Rhode Island has risen 10 inches since 1930, a rate that continues to rise, and the rate of rainfall is increasing as well as prolonged hot and dry periods.
“I think that Superstorm Sandy should have made it obvious to everybody that we have a changing climate,” said Meg Kerr of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program. “It is going to impact everything about life in this state with more storms, flooding at the coastlines, and sea level rise.”
“There is a lot of change coming and there will be impacts to the state’s natural resources and infrastructure,” she added. “There are hard decisions that will have to be made, and I think the report is the beginning of a conversation. There is lots of work that needs to be done.”
Stakeholders from all different aspects of Rhode Island’s public and private sectors, from environmental researchers and advocacy representatives to state and local housing organizations have participated in developing progress and highlighting future needs in the RICCC’s report and overall mission, providing the most up-to-date scientific information about how the climate is changing and the subsequent effects on Rhode Island’s communities.
Environmental and research groups such as Save The Bay, the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, and the URI Coastal Resources Center have worked alongside state and private groups, including the Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Realtors Association, and the Coastal Resources Management Council.
“My role as a Rhode Island Sea Grant extension specialist is to provide staff support and to help facilitate input to the process,” said Pam Rubinoff of Rhode Island Sea Grant. “That means everything from helping to organize meetings to helping to draft the report. “Given the history of RI Sea Grant on climate change, our job is very much assessing information and providing it to the members of the community for relevant issues and impacts on communities in Rhode Island.”
Dr. Michael Fine of the Rhode Island Department of Health is also a consultant to the RICCC, and sees climate change as much of a social heath problem as it is environmental or economic.
“What we think about most is about health impacts, and how climate change impacts things such as infectious disease,” said Fine. “We saw a pretty scary thing last summer, though not in Rhode Island, with mosquito-borne diseases. We will see other changes with instances of infectious disease as a result of climate change.”
“Our job is to figure those out, talk about them and figure out how to communicate them best,” he added.
Rubinoff did caution, however, that the commission’s resources are limited, and that no staff persons have been assigned to work specifically under the aegis of the commission, although it receives administrative support from the agencies represented in the RICCC’s working groups.
“We require grants to work on the things that we do and at this point, I do not have funds to move ahead as a staff person for this program,” said Rubinoff. “To my knowledge, there are no staff resources or a line item in the state budget allocated for staffing the commission explicitly.”
“There are designees for the commission, and they all have their jobs,” she added. “The roles of those people and the time it takes to complete the climate commission work still needs to be better defined.”
The importance of the RICCC in gathering and synthesizing scientific, social, economic, and health information regarding the impacts of climate change, nevertheless, is critical for state and local officials to produce thoughtful and informed policy decisions.
“It is critical that the state has the most updated information to use so they can strategically look to the future and to identify what are some of the key issues and some of the priority actions,” said Rubinoff. “Because we have limited resources, we have a lot to gain by being coordinated across government, non-government, and the private sector.”