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Why isn't Rhode Island the greenest state in the country?

As Earth Day approaches, we look for answers
By PHILIP EIL  |  April 17, 2014

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Two facts seem most relevant to any conversation about Earth Day 2014 (April 22) in Rhode Island.

First is that we’re in deep shit — or, in this case, seawater — when it comes to climate change. Projections illustrating how swelling tides and storm surges will affect us in the coming years are terrifying. While The Providence Journal opinion page remains a haven for climate change deniers, the paper’s “PolitiFact” team ruled last year that RI Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) director Grover Fugate’s take on possibilities for the year 2100 (“Waterplace Park would essentially be gone. . . the historic district in Wickford, a lot of that would be lost”) were “True” — or, in other words, entirely plausible when considering information from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. Rhode Island’s 400 miles of coastline may be our top tourism selling point, but they’re also a reminder of how vulnerable we are.

The second fact is our highest-in-the-nation 9.0 percent state unemployment rate, a number that needs no further explanation. We’re in last place. Period.

But if Rhode Island in 2014 could rightfully be called “The Rising Ocean State” and “The Unemployment State,” then why can’t we also be “The Green State,” the place by which others measure how well they’re protecting the planet and preparing for a climate change-scrambled future? Couldn’t such a transformation help us solve, or at least aggressively address, those other two problems?

Before you accuse us of reaching for a catch-all, two-birds-with-one-stone, silver-bullet solution, let us say that we know that Rhode Island isn’t going to turn itself around because of one economic sector. It isn’t wise to expect going “green” alone will save us, just as it wasn’t wise to expect investing heavily in a retired Red Sox hero’s video game venture would.

But, for the sake of Waterplace and Wickford — and the Ocean Mist, downtown Newport, and so many other places our children and grandchildren will inherit — shouldn’t we be trying our damnedest to go earth-friendly? And isn’t it fair to expect that some, perhaps even a lot of, jobs might be created in the process?

These are the questions we’re asking at Providence Phoenix HQ these days. And they’re the ones we’ll be discussing at our first-ever Phoenix Forum panel discussion on Thursday evening, April 17, at Betaspring (96 Chestnut St) in Providence. The name of the event is, “Why Isn’t Rhode Island the Greenest State In the Country?” Like our paper every week, it’s free of charge.

But even if you can’t make it out on Thursday, we hope you’ll find something useful from the following report.

A “GREEN” LIST?

There really isn’t a master “green” list to tell us where, as a state, we stand in comparison to others. Sure, in 2007, Forbes ranked Rhode Island #8 using “six equally weighted categories: carbon footprint, air quality, water quality, hazardous waste management, policy initiatives, and energy consumption.” And more recently, Rhody ranked sixth in both the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s (ACEEE) state scorecard and the Locavore Index of the Vermont-based organization Strolling of the Heifers (they were impressed with our 57 farmers’ markets).

Aside from all that, we were forced to lean on the ol’ lets-ask-people-who-know-what-they’re-talking-about ranking system. Strikingly, many of the people we asked — tireless enviro-advocate, Greg Gerritt; US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Clean Water Action RI director Jamie Rhodes; Environment RI Campaign director Channing Jones — all placed Rhode Island in or near the top 10 in the nation.

But we didn’t stop there. We set out to identify a few areas where there’s room — sometimes, lots — for ”green” improvement.

WE’RE WINNERS

Let’s start with some good news first.

There’s really no overstating how heartening it is that Rhode Islanders have the right idea when it comes to the environment. According to Stanford University public opinion data released in 2013, only 65 percent of Utah residents believe “past global warming has been caused by humans or in equal part by humans and natural fluctuations.” Residents of Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas clocked in at 68 percent. Rhode Islanders, meanwhile, were tops in the nation, with a 92 percent belief rate in — what’s the word we’re looking for — reality. With a score of 94 percent, Rhode Island also boasts the highest percentage of residents “who believe global warming will pose a serious problem for the United States.”

Not a fan of polls? Try voting records. Again and again and again, when Rhode Islanders encounter ballot proposals to approve bonds that secure protection for open space, farmland, wetlands, hiking trails, and other Mother Earth considerations, we say “Yes.” (In 2012, 70 percent of voters approved $20 million to protect farms, open space, and recreational lands. In 2010, it was 65 percent for $13.2 million for open space and parks. In 2008, it was 68 percent for $2.5 million for farmland and preserving natural areas. . . the list goes on.)

Rhode Island also has a running start when it comes to energy. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Rhode Island has the lowest per-capita consumption rate in the nation. Here, as in so many “green” categories, our size and density plays to our advantage, says Christine West, a LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design)-certified architect and chair of the Providence City Plan Commission.

It’s true that our housing stock is old and, on average, homes here are far less energy-efficient than elsewhere, West says. “But our transportation is so amazing and our density is so amazing, that it just swings the needle down to where we’re basically winning,” she says. “Nobody really has that long [of] a commute. . . all those trucks transporting goods, everybody going to school every morning — it’s not the distances that [people in] other parts of the country have to travel just on a daily basis.” There’s a reason Sustainable Sites — i.e., the location of a building — is a key LEED certification category, alongside Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality.

Finally, Rhode Island has a perfectly tangible model of what a dramatic environmental turnaround looks like. For this, we’ll hand the microphone to Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy at Save the Bay.

“The reclamation of Upper Narragansett Bay and our urban rivers is a remarkable success story, one that Rhode Islanders should be proud of,” he says. “We not done yet, but here, in the birthplace of the industrial revolution, we have transformed waters that were once open sewers into a spectacular centerpiece of the metro Providence area. The most obvious sign of this is WaterFire, which attracts thousands of people to the Woonasquatucket, Moshassuck, and Providence Rivers every year.

“But there is so much more,” he continues. “Today, the Providence River is bustling with activities that, only a generation ago, would have been unadvisable or unthinkable: community boating, kayaking, fishing from boats and from the shores of India Point, Bold Point, and the banks of the Seekonk River. Residential developments are underway in on the shores of East Providence. The Narragansett Bay Commission took on Rhode Island’s largest facilities — Fields Point in Providence and Bucklin Point in East Providence — and turned them from crumbling to award-winning operations, all while tackling the a good portion of the combined sewer overflow problem. Upper Bay shellfish beds are open far more frequently than in the past. East Providence and Cranston have made major upgrades to their wastewater treatment plants. We are not that far from the day when beaches in East Providence could be open for swimming.”

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