PROVIDENCE JOURNAL 05/01/15
By Michael Shank and US Congressman David Cicilline
Global warming is happening, here and now. Its impact is already being felt in coastal states like Rhode Island, and greenhouse gas emissions are undeniably responsible.
The evidence is all around us. Alarmingly, 2014 was the hottest year ever on record, a direct consequence of our carbon dioxide emissions. Last year is also on track to break the record for the highest C02 levels ever. Our carbon footprint grows larger with each passing year.
These trends have direct implications for Rhode Island. Rhode Island faces more frequent flooding. It is already witnessing sea-level rise faster than the rest of the world, as the Northeast experiences rates three to four times the global average.
The state is five to 10 times more likely than 50 years ago to experience flooding of one to two feet above high tide. Over the next 40 years, Rhode Island’s coast may see this kind of extreme flooding as often as 30 days a year. By the end of this century, we can expect the sea level to rise up to six feet globally, making these flooding prospects untenable to manage.
Sea level rise isn’t the primary climate problem facing Rhode Island, however. Oceans are rapidly warming and acidifying, promising more devastating super-storms and more frequent extreme weather events.
The world is seeing more severe droughts, heavier rains and bigger blizzards, as well as heat waves, flash flooding, and cold snaps, than ever before.
The harm all of this will do, most immediately to our fishing and marine industries, is not lost on anyone, and it is why Rhode Island is preparing now to ensure resilience in the face of sea level rise and ocean warming.
Warming sea temperatures, such as Narragansett Bay’s substantial rise in sea surface temperatures over the last few decades, also mean that Rhode Island cold-water fish are headed farther north, taking with them the lobsters that are susceptible to disease if they linger in warming waters. Simultaneously, warming Rhode Island waters will attract new invasive species from the south.
Greater annual precipitation, which has increased in Rhode Island by over 12 inches in the last century, also means movement and mixing of pollutants, nutrients, contaminants and salinity levels, all of which can critically undermine marine productivity. Invasive species and algae blooms are becoming more common, posing significant problems for Rhode Island’s fishing industry, which contributes over a half-billion dollars to the local economy.
Marine transportation is no less affected as increased storm intensity and precipitation, rising air temperatures and sea level, and a more acidic ocean all have corrosive and inhibitive impacts on ships and navigation. Degraded lifespans of ships and infrastructure, unsafe conditions and the need for new emergency rescue planning are all part of the new realities facing the marine industry.
The good news is that we can mitigate some of this. We don’t have to see summers warm by 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, with more days over 100 degrees than ever before. We don’t have to tolerate more days that don’t meet Environmental Protection Agency air-quality standards and exacerbate asthma problems for 100,000 Rhode Island residents. We don’t have to put Rhode Island at risk for more cases of dengue fever, West Nile virus and Lyme disease. But we must act quickly and courageously.
To keep the world safe from the threat of climate change, which President Obama just prioritized in his National Security Strategy, we need to transition fast and furiously to renewable energy and off fossil fuels. Rhode Island has plenty of wind to harness in this endeavor, which will be good for the local economy and great for green jobs. Rhode Island-based companies are already bidding to build wind farms off our shores. This pursuit must continue and include easy-to-capture conservation and energy efficiency gains.
The American people want clean energy and the economic growth and jobs that accompany its development and production. They want their elected officials to act on climate change. And they speak as a bipartisan majority on this issue. Now it’s time for us to listen.
David N. Cicilline, a Democrat, represents Rhode Island’s first congressional district. Michael Shank is director of media strategy for Climate Nexus and an adjunct faculty member at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.