Originally published in Providence Business News,
Environmentally, the world has changed overnight. The likelihood that our nation will combat the causes of global warming sank on Election Day. President-elect Donald J. Trump’s policies call for backing away from the Paris climate accord, scrapping the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and installing a climate denier as the agency’s head. And Congress seems unlikely to work with the rest of the world in slowing climate change.
But there may be one positive result from Washington’s inaction. We can now turn our attention toward defending against the rising costs and disruptions of warming, without being paralyzed by the hope that emissions regulations or a carbon tax will make that defense unnecessary.
The Ocean State has a greater need to defend against sea-level rise than other states. But we are lucky to be well-ahead of other coastal states in researching and understanding what’s ahead for us. Leadership from the state Department of Environmental Management, the tools and simulations from our cluster of science groups around the University of Rhode Island, plus organizations such as the Newport Restoration Foundation, have created convincing and dramatic projections of what’s ahead for our coastline, physically and economically.
Research and planning is one thing, but public awareness is another. Most Providence residents still don’t understand that a 3-foot rise in sea level, combined with storm surge, could put Narragansett Bay at the base of Smith Hill, lapping at the Statehouse. And Newporters are only beginning to conceive what it means to have 968 historic structures in the floodplain – in danger of being washed away along with the tourist revenue they attract.
Coastal threats are not the only costs ahead. As the severity of downpours increases, combined sewers pose increasing pollution and public-health risks since they mix residential, commercial and industrial wastes and other pollution with stormwater, all draining into our waterways. Rhode Island sewers release several billion gallons of untreated sewage into Narragansett Bay and its tributaries, and many towns across the state will be forced to undertake big-ticket projects to control overflows and pollution.
At the family, business and neighborhood levels, communities are looking ahead and expanding local food sources in case reduced rainfall and falling aquifers out West cut into our supply of groceries. We should also prepare for higher cooling needs, growing allergies and water shortages. Property owners need to anticipate declining values for flood- and drought-threatened homes and businesses, while municipalities need to face the resulting erosion of their tax base.
Taken together, these threats from a warmer atmosphere will be costly and disruptive to Rhode Island families, city halls and the Statehouse. Postponing public awareness of them and actions to protect ourselves just raises the costs.
Of course, pushing to cut emissions is still a must – to slow warming for the sake of our children and grandchildren. But now that we know the mitigation cavalry isn’t coming, it’s high time we start getting educated and serious about adaptation and protective measures. We don’t need the federal government to create many of these defenses.
Although they will take money and sacrifice, they are largely within the power of state, local and neighborhood organizations, businesses and families. It’s time to focus on these needs and where we’re going to find the money for them.
In one sense, though, nothing changed on Election Day. Even if Washington dramatically embraced programs to slow warming, there would be no early result. The atmosphere we’ve created guarantees rising temperatures, increased flooding and drought, and other changes over the next 20 years and more.
What has changed is that the refusal in Washington to tackle the causes of warming can now galvanize us to think clearly about protecting ourselves against its effects. •
David W. Stookey is editor of Climate-Proof.org and president of the Savvy Families institute. He lives in Newport.