Panel Discussion: APA-RI Act on climate

“I often think back, even to this day, what was the big fuss about this bill? It just made common sense, it was time to do it. Our constituents in Newport and Rhode Islanders all around the state want action on climate, that’s pretty much the bottom line,” shares Representative Lauren Carson. 

Last week, Rhode Island’s chapter of the American Planning Association hosted a panel on the recently passed Act on Climate Bill. This bill creates a plan to address the climate crisis through updating targets from former climate bill the Resilient Rhode Island Act to ones in line with the most recent science, including enforceability, so that the public may sue if the regulations are not followed — something the former bill did not have — and addressing the need for an equitable and just transition for frontline and environmental justice workers and communities requiring input from “people from populations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and at risk of pollution, displacement, energy burden and cost.”

The panel discussion of the bill was moderated by President of the Environment Council of Rhode Island Priscilla De La Cruz and included guests Senator Dawn Euer and Representative Lauren Carson (both sponsors of the bill), Liza Burkin, a lead organizer of Providence Streets Coalition, Acting Director of Rhode Island Democrats Terry Gray, and Managing Director of Turning Point Energy Michelle Carpenter. Governor McKee was also invited, but declined to attend.

The hour and a half panel covered a wide range of subjects from the ways Act on Climate builds on the Resilient Rhode Island Bill of 2014 to keeping up hope in the face of the climate crisis, particularly in the wake of the recent IPCC report. 

Director Gray expressed the state’s commitment and dedication to the implementation of the Act on Climate Bill and shared a letter Governor McKee sent to the cabinet members as they began to create a budget for 2023. “We passed four pieces of legislation this session that will put our state on a sustainable and prosperous path and these should be carefully considered as agencies submit their submissions to ensure that we meet the standards set in these laws. In particular, the Act on Climate, which ensures that the state is prepared for climate change and creates affordable and sustainable pathways towards the net zero emissions, needs to be considered in your budget submissions.” 

However, Burkin shared about the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, “Unfortunately they don’t seem to be taking it so seriously as witnessed in their latest ten year funding plan, which doesn’t analyze the climate impacts of the roadway and highway expansion projects and doesn’t adequately fund the transit, biking, and walking projects that we know will give people more mobility choices. Same thing with the Kennedy Plaza project and its impacts on equity. We’re just not seeing our state elevate the conversations and connections between climate, mobility, and equity yet.”

The biggest topic that was returned to over and over was the need for more accessible and sustainable modes of transit in Rhode Island. Panelists emphasized the link between transportation and the climate and equity.

Burkin emphasized that moving toward electric vehicles is not enough to halt the climate crisis. She shared that only 2% of U.S. new light duty vehicles are electric, and with an 11 to 12 year stock turnover, as most people own their cars for 10-12 years and to stay below 1.5° emissions must be cut 50-60% globally, there is simply not enough time to go from 2% electric cars to meet the needed threshold. 

“Since buildings and heavy industry are even harder to decarbonize than transportation, there’s a very strong climate argument behind urbanism and complete streets. We absolutely have to start rebalancing our street design to prioritize transit, biking, and walking.” 

“I think the big problem is that a lot of our policy makers and a lot of our state employees don’t take transit. They’ve never been on the bus, they’ve never tried to get around using RIPTA. I would love to see some kind of transit week at the state house. You can’t make decisions about a service if you don’t know what it’s like to use it. In the meantime, all state employee parking is free, I believe. That’s been written about at length in the Boston Globe, about how the combination of free parking for large businesses and the lack of transit benefits for large employers and government contributes to this culture of car culture, of cars being the only option,” she later added.

Senator Euer emphasized that she took great pride in the accomplishment of passing the Act on Climate, but also recognized that there is still a lot of work left to do to ensure that the bill is enforced by the state of Rhode Island and that Rhode Island continues to see legislation that focuses on equity and combating the climate crisis. 

“This was not the beginning of the state talking about climate change and it’s not going to be the end.”