- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Rhode Island faces a serious threat from climate change but should consider it an opportunity to become a national leader on this front, the head of a legislative panel on the environment said Thursday.

Chairman Arthur Handy of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee testified on sweeping legislation he introduced last month that establishes what he called the “planning blocks” of addressing climate change in the state.

Among other measures, the legislation calls for assessing areas susceptible to the effects of climate change, including rising sea levels; creating a climate change science advisory council; and setting targets for lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

“The science is very, very clear: Climate change is happening, it’s real, and it’s a threat to us,” said Handy, D-Cranston. “Where there’s a crisis, there’s an opportunity.”

Climate change is expected to lead to more severe weather, higher sea levels, rising ocean temperatures, coastal erosion and flooding. Sea levels have risen in Rhode Island by 10 inches in less than a century, and experts estimate those levels may rise by as many as 5 feet, reshaping the state coastline, over the next 100 years.

Supporters of Handy’s legislation said Rhode Island already is full of expertise in coastal management and the state has the potential to develop that further - and industries associated with it - into an engine of economic growth.

Ken Payne, of the University of Rhode Island’s College of Environment and Life Sciences, who helped craft the bill, gave the state good marks for its efforts so far on climate change.

“The issue really is we haven’t pulled the pieces together and brought them into a single place. This bill does that,” he said. “If Rhode Island doesn’t do it, it will, frankly, be a laggard.”

Gov. Lincoln Chafee recently created a Climate Change Council to coordinate the state’s efforts on the issue.

In testifying in favor of the bill, Abel Collins of the Sierra Club called the outlook for action on climate change at the federal level grim, saying that makes it even more critical for states to take action.

“I think this bill does a great job of leading the way and setting a standard which other states can hopefully follow,” he said.

One opponent of the legislation was Monica Staaf of the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. She said her organization supports the goals of reducing the state’s dependence on fossil fuels and lessening its carbon footprint.

But she said the bill is worded so broadly that it could provide “sweeping powers” to the Department of Environmental Management and other state agencies or committees, including the one that adopts building codes.

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