How Hurricane Sandy spurred Rhode Island climate action

While debate rages across the US over President Obama’s carbon cuts, one small east-coast state has taken a lead 

By Ed King

This coming Friday, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee will sign the state’s first major climate change bill into law.

The ceremony will take place at North Kingstown beach, a symbolic choice since it was once of the areas badly affected by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

While Rhode Island escaped the worst of Sandy, which left parts of New York City submerged, it affected 300,000 residents, 28% of the state’s population, leaving damage estimated at over US$42 million.

Mentally the storm also left an imprint, reminding residents of nature’s power, and leaving many feeling uneasy about how the state would cope in the future.

It was a sentiment picked up by Art Handy, a state representative in the Democrat party.

Already concerned about the effects of climate change, Handy says the storm presented a window of opportunity to get authorities to take the issue more seriously.

“One of the things I reminded people was what could have happened if Hurricane Sandy had hit us at high tide, instead of low tide,” he tells RTCC in a phone interview from the state capital Providence.

“Just a couple more inches of storm surge would have had a pretty good chance of washing away one of Newport’s two water supplies.”


Newport is a small town with around 24,000 residents, located 23 miles south of Providence, and 60 miles south of Boston, Massachusetts. A port since the 18th Century, it also hosts the US Naval College.

Sandy made landfall on 29 October 2012, hitting the two with a two-metre storm surge. The official report, published in January 2013, leaves little to the imagination.

“The storm surge destroyed houses and businesses, damaged pilings and deck supports, blew out walls on lower levels, and moved significant amounts of sand and debris into homes, businesses, streets, and adjacent coastal ponds,” it says.

“Septic systems were damaged and underground septic tanks were exposed, creating potential hazardous material exposure. Wind damage left downed trees and branches on homes, businesses, utility lines, and roadways.”

A road in Rhode Island becomes completely impassable, a week after Hurricane Sandy hit (Pic: Jennifer Macaulay/Flickr)

A road in Rhode Island becomes completely impassable, a week after Hurricane Sandy hit (Pic: Jennifer Macaulay/Flickr)

Miraculously no-one died, largely due to mandatory evacuations in eight coastal areas. But Handy says he felt the state government needed to get a firmer grip.

Building on a climate mitigation bill he managed to get approved in the summer of 2013, he started work on a wider piece of legislation, focused both on cutting greenhouse gas emissions and building in climate resilience to local regulations.

Handy drew on support from academics at Brown University in Providence, which has a burgeoning reputation for developing progressive climate policies in the US and across Latin America.

Timmons Roberts, a Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology at Brown, has written about his contribution to that process.

The experience of Sandy in 2012 and Hurricane Irene in 2011 made tough action easier to sell, but Handy wanted a law that would last for generations, he says.

“His vision was that preparing for rising sea levels and more intense storms should become business as usual in state agencies, and that climate impacts should be considered in every state and local bond issue and infrastructure project,” says Roberts.

Local focus

Passed in the state senate on June 19, the Resilient Rhode Island Act stipulates that greenhouse gas emissions should be slashed 45% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

It makes provision for a series of carbon budgets to hold government to account, as well as ensuring all government departments have to account for climate impacts when making long term plans.

Only a few legislators in Rhode Island’s Democrat-dominated chambers opposed the bill, and according to Handy its real strength is that it focused exclusively on local issues.

International weather events helped “keep it up on peoples’ radar screens” he says, but it was the potential to protect residents that won critics over.

“This isn’t about the polar bears or horrible things that will sadly happen in Asia,” he says. “But I’m hoping too that our side benefit is we do hit our carbon goals and we do lead behaviours in other states, and maybe across the country.

“Rhode Island’s ability to affect climate change is very small. It’s a butterfly wing flap kind of a thing.”

National debate

Governor Chafee’s moment on the beach comes at a fascinating time for US climate politics.

A hostile Congress has limited President Barack Obama’s room for manoeuvre, but there are clear signals he intends to address global warming as one of his legacy issues.

His climate action plan, announced in Autumn 2013, and subsequent proposals through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to close polluting power plants have both been met with considerable resistance in Washington and beyond.

Last month Republican John Boehner, who leads the US lower chamber, described the cuts as “nuts”, referring to it as a “national energy tax” and promising to oppose it.

This week the EPA is facing intense scrutiny, with hearings in Atlanta, Denver, Pittsburgh and Washington DC offering supporters and critics the chance to make their views public.

Handy admits the Rhode Island template of a law covering mitigation and adaptation isn’t likely to work in all US states, acknowledging Obama’s plans have clearly “struck a nerve” with his Republican opponents across the country.

Few state chambers are so ‘blue’, nor do many have federal Senators like Sheldon Whitehouse, who in March led an overnight ‘talkathon’ on Capitol Hill to draw attention to global climate impacts.

But Handy says his experience can offer a useful guide to others keen to develop their own laws – even if he’s yet to receive a call from his peers in other parts of the country.

He hopes the tiny state of Rhode Island, which only has two representatives in the House, can open another front in the fight against the fossil fuel-funded climate sceptic community, led by the Koch brothers.

“What I hope the work in Rhode Island does is keep on raising that profile more and more, and make the Koch brothers have to fight more fights,” he says.

“Maybe if they have to spend more time in Rhode Island they’ll do less trying to upend politics in North Carolina.”


Currently 28 US states have plans to address climate change, and nine have carbon pollution restrictions.

Last month Hawaii passed a law to protect it against rising sea levels and dying coral reefs. This week Washington State produced plans to set up and emissions trading scheme.

As a result of the EPA’s power plant proposals, by 2015 all 50 states will be required to have various levels of plans to comply with stipulated carbon cuts.

Rhode Island will contribute its fair share, says Handy, pointing out the state’s emission levels are already small, with EIA data revealing it has lowest per capita total energy consumption in the US.

Together with the nine-state strong Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and California-led Western Climate Initiative it adds up to a growing list of regulations aimed at addressing global warming.

But as it stands, the US will likely struggle to increase its current UN pledge to cut carbon pollution 17% on 2005 levels by 2020.

Even the State Department thinks the 2020 goal will be tough, and to go higher will likely need more states to follow Rhode Island, and push through climate-specific legislation.

Battle for minds

Meanwhile the costs of inaction are becoming clearer. On Tuesday the White House warned that warming of 3C would increase global damages by 0.9% of global output.

It’s trying to keep climate policy as a local issue, selling it as a form of insurance, pointing to health benefits, as well as opportunities to enhance energy security.

These arguments make sense to environmentalists and climate campaigners, but to opponents they’re a smokescreen, and one that will be targeted at the upcoming midterm elections.

These are likely to reveal just how convinced the American public is over the costs and benefits of going low carbon, and possibly determine how much room Obama has to play with when he announces the USA’s next set of international carbon targets in 2015.

According to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, at the moment 67% of voters support moves to cap power plant emissions, while 62% believe the US should take unilateral steps to cut emissions.

But with a bitter PR campaign looming, and both sides claiming their policies will secure a better future for Americans, those numbers could change. And it’s likely to come down to local politics.

“The biggest existential threat to climate change action is [US] campaign finance,” says Handy, who is running for re-election this year.

“Mark my words – I think we’re going to see a lot of spending by outside groups at the congressional races and maybe into the senate and state representative races.

“Not in Rhode Island – but somewhere like Maine. You may see some weird stuff happening.”

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