When Rhode Island’s General Assembly passed the Act on Climate earlier this year, it broke a stretch of inaction on climate change, under the leadership of former House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. 

“Not a single piece of energy or climate legislation had passed in about seven years,” said Priscilla De La Cruz, president of the Environment Council of Rhode Island and senior director for government affairs at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. 

The Act on Climate accelerated the state’s timeline for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, requiring the state to cut emissions to 45% of 1990s levels by 2030, 80% of 1990 levels by 2040, and reach net-zero by 2050. And it made those targets enforceable, meaning the state can be sued if it fails to cut emissions fast enough. 

The law also requires the state “to really get the input specifically from labor and environmental justice communities,” De La Cruz said. “Getting that language into the bill is really important.”

Top lawmakers and officials praised the law. And in a press release marking his hundredth day in office, Gov. Daniel J. McKee counted the Act on Climate as one of three legislative highlights. 

But, in the six months since it was passed, De La Cruz and other environmental activists say they’ve been frustrated by a lack of action to implement the law. 

“It already feels, on our end, on the advocacy side of things, as we're already behind,” De La Cruz said.

What has the state done so far?

The first deadline in the Act on Climate is for the state to update its 2016 greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan by the end of 2022. That plan called for a wholesale shift to renewable sources of electricity, increased energy efficiency, and for transportation and heating systems to be powered by electricity. 

The deadline “is going to come a lot quicker than we all realize,” said Terry Gray, acting director of the state Department of Environmental Management. Gray also chairs the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council, or EC4, a group of a dozen department heads who are tasked with submitting a plan for emissions reduction to the governor.

The EC4 is set to meet Thursday for the first time since June, and implementation of the Act on Climate is on the agenda. Gray said updating the emissions reduction plan will be a top priority.

“It's taken on a new sense of urgency and really a new sense of focus with the Act On Climate,” Gray said. “Goals became mandates. So everyone from the governor on down is taking this very seriously and focusing on how to keep Rhode Island in compliance.”

But a perennial critique of the EC4 is that the council has no dedicated staff or funding. And the EC4’s Advisory Board and Science & Technical Advisory Board are both missing members, who must be appointed by the governor and legislature. The STAB is without a chairperson, and has not met in over a year

Gray is looking to get more policy staff to work on the Act on Climate next year. He said other agencies may do the same because McKee encouraged agency heads to consider the Act on Climate when they make their budget proposals.

And he’s planning to have the council meet more often -- every two months instead of quarterly.

Some observers see the Act on Climate already being put into effect in day-to-day government decision making. 

Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Newport), who sponsored the Act on Climate, said she’s seen the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council and Attorney General’s office cite the law in the last few months. And the Energy Facility Siting Board, a state panel that regulates the construction of energy infrastructure, brought the law up in a recent hearing on a proposed liquefied natural gas facility in Portsmouth. 

“It was very exciting,” Euer said. “Consideration of climate shouldn't be like an add-on to what agencies are doing, it needs to be incorporated into agencies’ decision making and thinking.”

Euer said it finally feels like the state has moved on from debating whether climate change is really happening, and is starting to focus on taking action. And she plans to introduce legislation aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the coming year. 

Even so, she said, “we're not moving fast enough.”

The cost of delay

A coalition of environmental advocates has been pushing the state to get the ball rolling since this summer. In a July letter to McKee and other state officials, the coalition urged the state to take a couple first steps by Labor Day, including setting a timeline for updating the plan, outlining opportunities for public comment and assigning staff to lead the effort. 

They also presented their recommendations to the EC4’s Advisory Board in August. 

“We were hoping around this time now stakeholders would have already begun the process of meeting with state staff,” said De La Cruz, one of the authors of the letter. “But we don't yet know what the timeline will be to implement the Act on Climate or what the process will be like.”

Gray said that one reason the EC4 hasn’t met since June is due to changes in leadership. The McKee administration had to get on its feet, while dealing with the pandemic. And Gray took the helm when his predecessor, Janet Coit, left to lead the U.S. fisheries office during DEM’s busy summer season. 

Hank Webster, co-author of the letter and Rhode Island Director at the Acadia Center, said he hopes the EC4 meeting Thursday “serves as an opportunity to really kick off what will be a more aggressive planning process to update the state climate plan.”

But advocates worry that any delays will cause the process to be rushed later on. 

With a complicated, economy-wide policy challenge like emissions reductions, “if you're leaving things off to the last minute, you're kind of asking for hiccups to come up at a time when you don't really have time to deal with them,” said James Crowley, a staff attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation in Rhode Island.

He said colleagues in Maine and Vermont have seen unexpected complications rush the emissions reduction planning process in those states.

And the longer Rhode Island waits to change policy, the more difficult it will be to meet the 2030 mandate. 


Reporter Sofie Rudin can be reached at srudin@thepublicsradio.org.