• What’s the plan? – Adapting to a changing climate

    At the end of January, residents of the Newport area had a chance to hear from three individuals who are leading Rhode Island’s effort to deal with global warming and its impacts along the Ocean State’s extensive shoreline. While the speakers certainly shared some bad news, they also focused on our opportunity to get ahead of the problems through planning.

    At a public forum organized by the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, Grover Fugate, (Executive Director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council), Wenley Ferguson (Director of Habitat Restoration, Save the Bay) and Pamela Rubinoff (leader of the Climate Change and the Coast program at the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center) painted a picture of a coastline at risk. Accelerating sea-level rise, now predicted to reach three to five feet over the coming decades, threatens homes, roads and other infrastructure, busy commercial neighborhoods, vital ecosystems, and economies around the state. (Kyle Hence of ecoRI Inc. wrote a nice summary of some discussion highlights.)

    Here is just one stark example of potential economic domino effects: Flood insurance rates for coastal properties soar, so those homes and businesses are no longer affordable nor saleable, meaning that towns lose a significant proportion (up to 20% or even more) of the property tax revenue that allows them to invest in schools or anything else. Never mind the potential damage if (when) Rhode Island is directly impacted by a storm like Sandy, which destroyed 360,000 homes in New Jersey – more than four-fifths of the total housing stock in the Ocean State.

    While Rhode Island is setting a high bar and even leading the nations in some important respects – e.g. with its forward-looking “Special Area Management Plans,” such as the Beach SAMP – a key takeaway from the 90-minute discussion (audience members contributed a range of interesting and concerned questions) was that we need to do more. Rhode Island, and by implication other states, need to prioritize action to prepare for environmental changes that are already underway. We need local plans as well as a coordinated statewide effort, in which policies, business strategies and personal choices will all play a part. We need to invest in ideas like some mentioned by the speakers – moving some infrastructure higher or further inland, developing new types of storm drains that reduce flooding, eliminating pavement to improve drainage in areas where floodwater tends to collect, and so forth.

    (Note that this particular discussion deliberately did not focus on reducing emissions. Audience members were reminded of the scientific explanation that humans are contributing to global warming through such actions as turning on a light switch, which typically draws on electricity generated by burning coal, which in turn releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a thickening layer of gases that traps in heat, leading to different weather patterns around the globe, different rainfall, different wind, different sea currents, and so forth. But attention was for the most part focused on what to do about these changes, which are already occurring, and will continue for some time even if no further CO2 were released into the atmosphere starting today.)

    Most critically we need to be acting together to meet this challenge. Professionals like Fugate, Ferguson and Rubinoff are taking action, developing local plans and ideas and spreading the word. The rest of us need to get on board, as communities, as a state, as a nation, to build the plans that will assure a safe and prosperous future in a changing world.

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