RHODE ISLAND — Over the weekend, Gov. Dan McKee signed legislation that will drastically cut the Ocean State’s climate emissions over the next two decades.
Under the 2021 Act on Climate, the state will develop a plan to incrementally reduce climate emissions to net-zero by 2050. The plan will be updated every five years and will also address areas such as environmental injustices, public health inequities and a fair employment transition as fossil-fuel jobs are replaced by green energy jobs.
“With four hundred miles of coastline, urban and rural coastal communities, fishing and agricultural industries, the Ocean State is on the frontlines of the climate crisis,” McKee said. “The Act on Climate represents a commitment that not only addresses a moral imperative, but also presents a platform to enhance our economy, public health, environmental equity and natural environment. I look forward to working with the General Assembly, the congressional delegation, local communities, small business, labor, advocates and other stakeholders to ensure those efforts create affordable and sustainable pathways toward a net-zero climate emission future.”
Supporters of this effort include Attorney General Peter Neronha, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit, House Speaker K. Shekarchi (Dist. 23 – Warwick) and the vast majority of the General Assembly.
“Here in the Ocean State, and particularly in my home city of Warwick, we suffer the effects of rising seas and increasingly intense storm surges that regularly damage homes, businesses and infrastructure,” Shekarchi said. “Rhode Island must join the global effort to address the climate crisis, and will directly benefit in many ways, not the least of which will be job creation in green industries. The Act on Climate puts Rhode Island on a path to a sustainable and prosperous future.”
In fact, Rhode Island is following in the footsteps of other states like Massachusetts, New York and Maine, which have already enacted similar climate legislation in recent years with the same goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to a low carbon economy.
Not all state leadership has been in support of this move, however.
House Minority Leader Blake Filippi (Dist. 36 – Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly) has expressed his opposition to this legislation on numerous occasions, largely because of the power it will give “to an unelected group of bureaucrats appointed by the governor.”
The Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council — to be composed of numerous state department directors — will be responsible for developing the plan to achieve these objectives.
“That plan must dictate how we get there — how you get there,” Filippi said during a video appeal to Rhode Islanders last March. “What you can drive, how you can heat your homes, how your municipalities develop, how your businesses survive. They dictate that plan, and it automatically has the force of law.”
“The problem we have with this bill isn’t a dispute over climate change or science,” he stressed. “The dispute we have is the power over your life has to be regulated by us, the General Assembly. The people who are on your ballot, knock on your doors and whose phone numbers you have.”
His major fault with this legislation is that the plan developed by the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council never comes back to the General Assembly for approval, and there doesn’t get to be any debate or votes over what will be required of Rhode Islanders.
His concerns were also echoed by House Minority Whip Michael W. Chippendale (Dist. 40 – Coventry, Foster, Glocester), who warned against giving such broad power to a council that will oversee almost every aspect of our lives.
“We are giving the council a very direct mandate to focus on only one thing — everything else be damned,” Chippendale said. “Right in the legislation, ‘Go straight for your goal. Nothing shall get in your way.’ We, on the other hand, as legislators, are forced to balance all of the other competing interests of the state.”
Chippendale stressed the need for more checks and balances during his testimony against this legislation in March. While there is the option to go back and fix mistakes with new legislation, the easiest solution, he said, would be to not give away so much power.
After legislation passed in the House and the Senate, the Rhode Island Republican Party launched an online campaign asking constituents to call McKee and ask him to veto the 2021 Act on Climate. Apart from the broad power and lack of oversight they feared it would give to the council, Filippi, Chippendale and others fear it will wildly inflate the cost of living.
Shortly after McKee signed the 2021 Act on Climate into effect on Saturday Filippi took to Twitter to share his disappointment. According to Filippi, the act “is likely unconstitutional because it is too broad a delegation of the legislative power, AND even if such a delegation is lawful, it is inappropriate to do so.”
Coit — who will be one of many state directors to sit on the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council — believes this will “put Rhode Island on the right track.”
“The Department of Environmental Management is eager to work with partners, businesses and community members to make sure we design and support programs that — like the rising tide — give everyone a boost when it comes to a cleaner future,” Coit said. “The impacts of climate change are here now, and we know that being smart and strategic about how to grow greener will result in jobs and healthier communities.”
“I am proud of the legislators and advocates who led work on this legislation and I am eager to work with the governor on the plans and programs to achieve the goals of the Act on Climate,” she added.
Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Dawn Euer (Dist. 13 – Newport, Jamestown), the bill’s Senate sponsor, and Rep. Lauren H. Carson (Dist. 75 – Newport) the bill’s House sponsor, also expressed their enthusiasm seeing the act signed into effect.
“The Act on Climate represents a strong commitment to the long-term health of our planet, as well as economic opportunity for our state,” Euer said. “With this act, we are jumping to the leading edge of those states and nations that are changing the landscape of power generation. The Ocean State, which is already home to the nation’s first commercial offshore wind farm, is well-positioned for explosive growth in the green economy, and this commitment will fuel the creation of green jobs and clean industry, and help drive down the costs of environmentally sound technology.”
The climate crisis is enormously important to Rhode Islanders, according to Carson, “and the Act on Climate finally takes decisive action to address it.”
“Rhode Island will now, at last, create specific, evolving, science-backed plans to wind down carbon output and ramp up renewables, with public input, environmental justice and accountability,” she said. “The extent to which our climate continues to change is within our control, and I am so proud that the Ocean State is standing among the leaders of the world in making this commitment to our planet and to future generations.”