By Chris Adams, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)
NEWPORT, R.I. — In statehouses around the country, the battle is heating up to stop the climate change agenda of President Barack Obama.
But here in the Ocean State, Rhode Island state leaders are not pushing back against the president. They’re going even further than he has.
Whether addressing rising waters that can damage historically significant homes in Newport or reducing the amount of carbon pollution power plants pump into the air, officials in Rhode Island have decided they must act, whatever the feds might do.
Indeed, the debate in Washington may have devolved into a typical Beltway scrum about giving the president what he wants or asking the U.S. Supreme Court to stop him. But in places such as the state capitol in Providence, R.I., and Olympia, Wash., and Sacramento, Calif., state officials already are deploying strategies that could slow some of the impact of climate change.
“These threats are real to us — 21 municipalities out of 39 are coastal,” said Elizabeth Stone, who coordinates climate change policy for Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management. “Look at our coastline if we have one or three or five feet of sea-level rise by the end of this century — it’s quite drastic.”
The latest flash point is over the president’s push to reduce carbon pollution. On Oct. 23, the White House formally published its Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions. To reach mandated targets, states can work alone or with neighbors, modifying their mix of coal, natural gas and renewable energy. The goal: Cut power-sector carbon pollution by 32 percent from 2005 levels.
That same day, officials from 24 state governments pounced.
In a lawsuit before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the state officials contend Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency has “vastly overstepped its authority” by “requiring the states to take part in this unlawful regime” that will “require massive and immediate efforts by state energy and environmental regulators.”
Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general and a leader of the state coalition, said he’s focused on the legality of the EPA’s action — not the broader issue of climate change.
“If this is an issue that is going to advance in the future, it should be undertaken by Congress — and we obviously haven’t seen that,” he said in an interview.
“In West Virginia, we are mindful that the consequences of this illegal action are severe,” he added. “There will be lost jobs, the potential for a real spike in electricity prices — and it may potentially put the reliability of the power grid at risk. But all of that is secondary to the core issue: Does the administration have legal authority to advance one of the most sweeping and radical regulations of our lifetime?”
In North Carolina, the Department of Environmental Quality has joined the lawsuit. Secretary Donald van der Vaart, appointed by a Republican governor, said in an interview the rule is illegal and that it will increase costs and cede control of the state’s power-generating system.
“The real question is, ‘Why would I support it?'” he said.
But for evidence that the split among the states is real, you only need to walk down the street from van der Vaart’s office.
There, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, is not part of the 24-state coalition that van der Vaart’s office is. In a letter to state lawmakers this summer, Cooper said he was concerned that legal action against Obama’s plan “will risk North Carolina’s well-deserved reputation for protecting the quality of our air, recruiting businesses that produce cutting-edged technologies and offering leadership around the world on energy issues. … I encourage you to avoid the path of litigation.”
In Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi says in a statement that her state “will not stand by and allow these unlawful and heavy-handed utility regulations to trample our states’ rights and drastically increase electricity prices in Florida.”
Some local officials, however, don’t agree. Local governments in Broward County and South Miami last week joined with 18 state attorneys general and individual cities to support the EPA. In a filing opposing the 24-state coalition, those officials said the power plan “will help prevent and mitigate harms that climate change poses to human health and the environment.”
Added Broward County Mayor Tim Ryan: “It’s unfortunate that the state government is taking a position averse to the opinions and the best interests of Florida citizens.” The lifelong Democrat said the government needs to take action because “if we don’t act now, then our children’s and grandchildren’s futures in low-lying areas are jeopardized.”
Legal skirmishing aside, many states already are working on what are known as mitigation and adaptation strategies to reduce carbon emissions and to deal with heat waves, flooding, storm surges and other expected climate change impacts.
“Look, this is already happening,” said Rachel Cleetus, who oversees climate policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy organization. “Despite the legal challenges, the states themselves are moving ahead, putting together compliance plans for the Clean Power Plan. The just-say-no strategy is losing steam.”
That was a reference to a pitch by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that states should think twice before submitting to comply with Obama’s power plan.
According to an assessment by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 16 states already are on a path to exceed the Obama administration’s carbon-cutting targets for 2030; a majority of states already have made significant progress toward the 2022 benchmarks also contained in the plan.
Rhode Island, for one, is well on the way to meeting the Clean Power Plan goals, as are other Northeastern states that form the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Along with other states, Rhode Island also has joined the effort to support the Obama administration in court.
Rhode Island has an executive-level climate change council to coordinate the activities of its state agencies. “Impacts from climate change are already being felt in Rhode Island, like elsewhere in New England. It requires action now, not just in the future,” according to a report from the council.
As with other Northeastern states, Rhode Island’s own goals to cut emissions are broader than the federal plan, targeting transportation, the heating sector and other emissions sources — not just power plants.
“We’ll be looking at significant cuts and pretty aggressive policy suggestions,” said Stone, from the state’s environmental department. She said Rhode Island is positioned to meet the Clean Power Plan goals.
And a reason why is something Pieter Roos sees more and more.
For Roos, executive director of the Newport Restoration Foundation in this historic and picturesque coastal town, political debates over climate change are something of an abstraction.
Instead, he’s preparing to adapt — and his mission is a small slice of what Rhode Island in general is doing, which is a small slice of what many states around the country are doing.
“I’m not prepared to comment on the validity of the scientific evidence,” he said on a recent fall day as he pointed out the homes he oversees — some dating to the early 1700s — that now regularly flood. “I can only comment on the observed evidence, and that is that I see more water in basements.”
His challenge is one faced by preservationists around the country; they’ll gather next year in Newport for a new conference, Keeping History Above Water.
“I am not a scientist. I’m a museum director and a preservationist,” he said. “I can only deal with the issues that are coming up in front of me. … I don’t have time to pay attention to folks who think that climate change isn’t real.”
Photo: A lighthouse off Newport, R.I., as seen on Oct. 9, 2015. Residents and preservationists in Newport are concerned about the impact of climate change on sea levels in the surrounding waters. Even before the federal government came out with its climate-change plan, Rhode Island officials had a detailed plan to address it. (Chris Adams/McClatchy DC/TNS)