ecoRI News - Frank Carini, ecoRI News staff // #ActOnClimate
Enforcement language in widely supported bill was written narrowly and law naturally insulated against frivolous lawsuits
Similar to last year’s bill of the same name, this year’s Act On Climate legislation focuses on making Rhode Island’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals mandatory and enforceable. The 2021 bill does so by allowing Rhode Island residents, nonprofits, and businesses to sue to force the state to comply with the law.
It’s the most controversial and misunderstood part of the legislation, which would make reductions in climate emissions required and hold state government legally accountable for meeting a net-zero goal by 2050 and the interim targets along the path to get there.
Predictably, the bill, and most notably those enforceable targets, have been attacked by the usual suspects: the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, and truth-mangling lawmakers uninterested or unwilling to deal with reality.
A fringe coterie of lawmakers has spent the past few weeks claiming the bill would cause a flood of lawsuits against the state. Their fearmongering, however, ignores the fact that the legislation doesn’t allow plaintiffs to collect money awards. Their scare tactics leave out the part about how those suing have to provide the state with a 60-day notice to give officials time to comply with the law. Their deception doesn’t take into account that plaintiffs’ legal fees would only be recouped if the state fails to take action in 60 days and they go on to win the case.
Under this scenario, a private party filing a lawsuit against the state for failing to meet its greenhouse-gas emissions targets would likely be out of concern about the climate crisis and public health. It’s not a money-making scheme, as a plaintiff, at best, can only break even financially.
Since she was sworn into the Senate four years ago, Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, has introduced a version of the current Act On Climate bill to make emission targets enforceable. She called the disinformation campaign swirling around this year’s version “disappointing,” “frustrating,” and “not surprising.”
The chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture said the bill was drafted with care about who can file a lawsuit and under what conditions. She called the legislation a commonsense plan to free Rhode Island from its dependence on fossil fuels.
“The bill is about taking action on climate change in a thoughtful way,” Euer said. “We need to set lofty goals if we’re going to address this crisis. The bill creates a path for us to get there. It doesn’t encourage frivolous lawsuits and wasteful spending of tax dollars.”
Among those raising concerns about this part of the bill, although not in the same hysterical manner, is Gov. Daniel McKee. The former lieutenant governor recently told lawmakers that he has “serious concern” about the bill giving private parties the ability to sue the state. He noted that only the attorney general should be allowed to bring such legal action, according to The Boston Globe.
Attorney General Peter Neronha recently told Dan Yorke that the goals of the Act On Climate bill “are exactly right, which is to get us serious about climate change.”
“There are citizen supervisions in a lot of the existing environmental laws — Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act,” Neronha said. “So citizen supervisions are fairly common.”
In an email to ecoRI News, the attorney general’s public information officer noted that the Act On Climate bill sends an important message — “that we, collectively as a state, need to take meaningful and sustained action to address climate change.”
She wrote that there “are current procedural safeguards in place to prevent specious litigation from advancing in court, so that should not be a major concern related to this bill.”
The Boston Globe story reported that in a letter to a House committee McKee wrote that allowing a range of people and groups to sue will “likely lead to expensive, protracted, and vexatious litigation” against the state.
James Crowley, a Conservation Law Foundation staff attorney, said there’s no reason to believe the Act On Climate bill would result in a wave of lawsuits. He said that both Massachusetts (the Global Warming Solutions Act became law in 2008) and Connecticut (the Act Concerning Connecticut Global Warming Solutions became law in 2008) have binding climate legislation and only one citizen lawsuit in total has so far been filed. He noted that lawsuit wasn’t frivolous, as it proved successful.
Meg Kerr, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, noted that the enforcement language in the bill was “narrowly written” and that parties “can’t sue for damages.”
Euer said the bills in both chambers were written with the intention of holding the state’s government accountable for reducing climate emissions. She said the intention of the bills is to make sure the state follows the law and hits its climate-emission reduction targets.
“We need to introduce climate-change thinking into agency thinking,” Euer said. “We have to incorporate climate change into all sectors of government decision-making.”
As an example, she noted the importance of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority and the Rhode Island Department of Transportation building a comprehensive transportation policy that addresses that sector’s significant contributions to the state’s carbon emissions.
Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, the sponsor of the House Act On Climate bill, referred to the legislation as a 30-year climate plan. She noted that while change is difficult, it’s coming regardless.
Seven years ago, the General Assembly passed its first comprehensive climate bill, the toothless Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014. The 2021 Act On Climate bill is simply a modernization, with some bite, of that legislation to reflect current science.
The bill moves Rhode Island’s current emissions reduction target from 80 percent by 2050 to 2040. The Resilient Rhode Island Act’s 45 percent reduction goal is moved from 2035 to 2030, and net-zero emissions must be achieved by 2050. The Act On Climate bill also puts the responsibility on state agencies to enact plans established by the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4).
“Noting new is being invented here. It’s an existing law that’s being amended,” Kerr said. “We’re not creating a brand-new body; we’re expanding the work the EC4 has been doing all along. Greenhouse-gas reduction targets have been sped up.”
The objections surrounding the bill aren’t confined to the fear of rampant litigation. Opponents also claim, falsely, that the legislation places expensive requirements on individuals and businesses to meet the state’s climate-emission reduction goals, such as forcing homeowners and business owners to spend tens of thousands of dollars on electric heating systems and electric vehicles (EVs).
There are no such mandates in the bills, and, as a recent story in the Providence Journal reported, costs to install electric-heat conversions are far lower than the $50,000 to $100,000 figure the General Assembly’s fearmongers are claiming.
“They’re scaring people into thinking the government is going to make you spend money you don’t have on new electric heating systems and EVs,” Kerr said. “That’s not the case.”
The Senate passed its Act On Climate bill by a vote of 33-4, which included the Senate minority leader voting in favor. The House passed its version of the bill by a vote of 53-22.
Both the Senate and House are scheduled to vote April 6 on the other chamber’s Act On Climate bill. Both versions, which include the exact same language, are expected to pass. They would then be sent to the governor’s desk to be signed, vetoed, or ignored.
Editor’s note: On April 6 both the House, by a 50-20 vote, and the Senate, by a 28-9 vote, approved the Act On Climate bills. They now head to McKee’s desk.
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