Then in June, 2017, President Trump announced that he’d be withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement. With a record delegation of 18 Brown students at the UN talks in Germany in 2017, we heard U.S. dignitaries like Michael Bloomberg and Jerry Brown proclaim that “We Are Still In!”-- that states, cities and corporations would pick up the slack and meet the pledge to reduce emissions our nation made in Paris. As the country most responsible for the greenhouse gases disrupting our planet’s climate, the rest of the world has always looked to us to do the heavy lifting. These local efforts are therefore crucial. To keep the effort by the international community to solve this wicked problem moving forward, national efforts matter most. We needed to get back in.
Therefore, it was time for us to change course.
Why is there such a disconnect between science, public opinion, and action on climate change in the U.S.? We have brought a series of research tools to bear on this question, and met with various experts to give us their take. While in DC we heard from top reporters from the New York Times, The Atlantic Magazine and five other specialist outlets. We spoke with activists and organizers in the environmental movement about their theories of change, and on issues of disunity in the movement. We conducted interviews with top industry organizations and nonprofits to understand who has influence over U.S. climate policy and why. We went to the U.S. Senate to talk to a group of senators about our work, and to observe how that body operates. We had a wonderful and productive evening at our accommodation with Rhode Island Senator, Sheldon Whitehouse, and his staff to talk about climate policy and the role of science.
Students in the class are the core of the lab, an experiment in engaged scholarship and learning (see www.climatedevlab.brown.edu/about). During the summer and fall of 2018, we developed a whole new batch of projects, which are being conducted by different small teams of undergraduate and doctoral students, postdoctoral researchers, and two faculty members. Each project utilizes different methods, is designed for and with different partners, and is meant for different audiences. This article briefly summarizes these new directions for the lab, written by the teams leading each project.
Project 1: Briefing paper on Climate Countermovement Coalitions
Caroline Jones, Cartie Werthman, Cole Triedman, Daniel Motley and Mara Dolan
A team of five CDL researchers, led by undergraduate teaching assistant Caroline Jones, culminated a months-long research project with a report detailing the strategies of twelve main climate coalitions within the climate change countermovement. These “denial coalitions” take a variety of forms, but in essence operate as corporate front groups aiming to obstruct action on climate change by creating a false image of popular support against action on the issue, and by propagating false or misleading science. We compiled a 37-page report profiling these coalitions (several of which are still active today), focusing on their actions, strategies, and funding sources. The report includes original research about these groups’ activities and impacts, drawing from sources ranging from tax forms and Twitter feeds to archived press releases. The report profiles the extent to which these denial coalitions have been given access to administration officials and Congress in both Democratic and Republican administrations, presenting similar messages and tactics.
Jones presented the research to a half dozen U.S. senators on the U.S. Senate Climate Action Task Force, including Rhode Island’s Senators, Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed. The report will be rolled out in media outlets in early 2019. The primary findings of the report centered on the way climate denial coalitions have been able to maintain their access and legitimacy in Congress and the media by repeatedly re-branding themselves, rebounding from criticism in the media with new names, while maintaining the same sources of funding, the same leadership, and the same membership and staffing. The strategy has been extremely effective: oil, gas, and coal companies have joined with electricity utilities and other industrial allies to frustrate and crush every effort by the federal government to address climate change. The report is the first time that these twelve coalitions and their many overlaps in funding, staffing, and strategy have been profiled together, highlighting the misinformation campaigns and messaging tactics employed by these groups for the past 30 years.
Lisa Schold, Clare Steinman, and Rachel Risoleo
This project investigates the networks of influence in the development of energy and climate change policy in Rhode Island. Previous research by the Climate and Development Lab compiled all written testimony made at the Rhode Island Statehouse in support or opposition to 49 pieces of climate and energy legislation introduced between 2012 and 2017. In this study we interviewed those organizations that testified to create a mapping of influence networks and a Climate and Energy Influence Index that will identify top players in this policy arena. The Rhode Island study also served as a pilot for our National study of influence mapping.
Interviews were conducted by the whole lab team, with members of corporations and industry organizations, civil society groups, labor unions, government agencies, and experts, from a range of positions on the political spectrum. The findings will contribute to policy briefings, academic publications, blog posts, and other media engagement (such as op-eds) on the political influence of various actors around the issues of energy and climate change. This study will contribute to the public understanding of how energy and climate policy is developed in Rhode Island, as well as to academic knowledge on networks of influence and the role of diverse and powerful interests in shaping political agendas.
We investigate the networks of influence in the development of energy and climate change policy in the U.S. Drawing on data from previous research on this topic by Professor Robert Brulle that measured influence, based on presence at public hearings, publishing in major newspapers, and attendance at the UN climate negotiations. We requested interviews from the top 108 organizations who appear to be driving American energy and climate policy-making. In doing so, we are working to map networks of influence and ultimately create a Climate and Energy Influence Index that will identify top players in this policy arena.
The research was conducted over the course of the semester by members of lab. The bulk of the interviews were carried out in Washington DC, and included officers of corporations and industry organizations, civil society groups, labor unions, government agencies, and experts, from across the political spectrum. This research will contribute to policy briefings, academic publications, blog posts and commentary pieces on the political influence of various actors around the issues of energy and climate change. Like the state-level project, this study will contribute to the public understanding of how energy and climate policy is developed in the United States, as well as to academic knowledge on networks of influence and the role of diverse and powerful interests in shaping political agendas.
Project 4. Principles for a Sustainable and Just Transportation System in RI
Nina Wolff Landau and Nathaniel Pettit
The Rhode Island Division of Statewide Planning is in the midst of developing its Transit Master Plan (TMP). Transportation accounts for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in Rhode Island, and is the fastest growing source of emissions. Yet transportation has often been neglected. The release of the TMP presents an opportunity to make transportation a state priority and unify multiple communities behind its improvement and transformation towards building a clean, affordable, reliable and comfortable system for all.
Given the scope of climate change, issues of social injustice, and uneven economic prosperity in the state, the Transit Master Plan needs to be bolder than any previous plan Rhode Island has ever completed. Working with feedback from environmental, housing, transit, social justice, and smart growth groups, we have developed seven guiding principles to which we believe the state’s new TMP must adhere to. The principles are being signed on by groups across the state, and they will be presented to the Division of Statewide Planning early in 2019.
The principles address the key issues that are at stake with transit and how the TMP must take housing, equity, economic exclusion, greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and building real economic prosperity into account. Each principle includes a short explanation as well as one or two examples of policy recommendations. While the TMP itself cannot accomplish each policy recommendation, it can point to the need for new laws, regulations, and processes, and indicate next steps to achieving them. These principles also extend beyond the TMP to apply more broadly to transit that is just, sustainable, and effective for Rhode Island. We hope this will:
- Show the Division of Statewide Planning the broad support for a bolder TMP,
- Push the state to take coordinated action on housing, equity, transit-oriented development, climate change mitigation, and smart growth that the plan itself cannot accomplish, and
- Build a broad coalition of support for these policies and a focus on transit.
Project 5. Jamaica Climate Change Adaptation Projects
Stacy-ann Robinson, Emma Bouton, Mara Dolan, Curtis Stiles, Andrea Vega Troncoso
This project is a follow-up on the research conducted by lab members Emma Bouton, Mara Dolan, and Dr. Stacy-ann Robinson in the summer of 2018 on the factors that have made internationally-funded and community-based climate change adaptation projects successful in Jamaica. The team conducted interviews and focus groups in the communities that were involved in two adaptation projects implemented by the United Nations Development Programme. During these discussions, it became apparent that the communities would benefit substantially in terms of economic development by building on these two original adaptation projects.
In the community of Glengoffe, residents saw the creation of a juice processing plant as a great opportunity to increase their incomes by putting to use the pineapples and other fruits that were planted as vegetative barriers to reduce the impacts of landslides during the original UNDP project. Curtis and Andrea helped to amend a pre-existing business plan for the juice start-up. They also compiled information on ten potential funders for future grant proposals by the community. In the communities of Pleasant Valley and White Chapel, residents identified their computer center as a valuable resource, but they did not have access to internet, and so they could not use the computers they had been donated. Thus, Dr. Robinson, Andrea, and Curtis were able to get in contact with telecommunications providers in the area and are seeking funding for installing internet at the community center.
The projects have connected these communities to sources of capital and avenues for international funding such as foundation grants. These community-based projects will both foster the economic development and infrastructure necessary to help ensure that Glengoffe, Pleasant Valley, and White Chapel are more resilient in the face of increasing economic disruption from climate change.
Project 6. Rhode Island Climate Accountability Dashboard
Ben Gross and Angie Kim
The Governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo, has put forward some bold climate goals. These goals include the state acting in accordance with the Paris Agreement, installing 1000 Megawatts of renewables by 2020, and a pledge to “stand up to climate change” by appointing a resilience officer. In addition, Rhode Island has emissions reduction goals established in the Energy 2035 report and the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) RI Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan. However four years in, there are no clear methods for holding the administration accountable to the standards Governor Raimondo has set forth or agreed in major legislation approved just before taking office. The aim of the project is to compile these goals and other important indicators of climate change adaptation and mitigation into one online dashboard that makes it easy to understand the progress being made on these issues, and where the state needs more effort.
Over the fall we created a website with a clear, easy to use layout that demonstrates what this dashboard could look like for Rhode Island. For reducing emissions, the dashboard could show progress on indicators such as Total Carbon Emissions, Emissions from Transportation, Percent of Renewable Energy in the state’s electricity production, Average per Capita Fuel Use, and Clean Energy Jobs.
Our initial work has made it apparent that there are three roadblocks to creating this dashboard. The first is that there are not clear goals set by the administration on a range of climate indicators, particularly goals on how to adapt to climate impacts. The second is uncovering timely statistical information to populate these indicators. Third is the challenge of continuously updating this information to ensure its accuracy. Clearer goals on a variety of fronts may be established, in part, by creating new models for Rhode Island that allow for full decarbonization by 2050 (see section below). We also believe that there may be an exciting opportunity to create a joint center hosted at Brown for tracking emissions and climate change adaptation efforts in Rhode Island, which could do the work of making sure the website stays up to date. See the full status report of RICAD here. We were able to briefly present the report to the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (the EC4) at its December 3rd, 2018 meeting, and are hopeful that there may be an opportunity to continue working with the Council and the RI Department of Environmental Management to establish the dashboard in 2019.
Project 7: New Models for Decarbonizing Rhode Island: Re-running the 2016 GHG Plan
Angie Kim, Ben Gross, Daniel Traver, Timmons Roberts
In December 2016, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), released a document entitled, “The Rhode Island Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Plan.” The plan breaks down the current emissions from RI and shows several models of projected emissions with the institutionalization of different technical solutions. While this plan is a step in the right direction, the modeling used to create the plan used 80% reductions by 2050 for its emissions goals, consistent with the state’s 2014 targets under the Resilient Rhode Island Act. The newest IPCC report on 1.5 degrees Celsius and U.S. National Climate Assessment make it clear that 100% emissions reductions by 2050 or sooner are essential for society having a chance of staying under or near 1.5 degrees C of global warming. The lab is working with the Stockholm Environment Institute’s research center based in Boston that ran the initial study, to re-run the models. The goal is to demonstrate that total net decarbonization is possible for Rhode Island while maintaining economic growth, and to understand the likely costs and steps needed in new laws and regulations. In addition to shedding light on more ambitious emissions reduction targets, students are conducting research on various improvements to the model inputs. For example, what studies exist on nonlinearities in electrification costs as we approach greater use of electric vehicles and building heating units, with 100% renewables on the New England grid? What are the state’s emissions levels with more realistic estimates of leakage rates from natural gas pipes in the region? What about if leaked methane’s impact on the climate is understood in more stringent scientific terms?
Project 8: Technical support team for Green New Deal RI/Resilient RI Act 2.0
A new team of lab researchers is currently working on draft legislation amending the emissions reductions goals in the Resilient Rhode Island Act to make these targets more ambitious and in line with the scale of action that the science suggests is necessary to fight climate change. We are working to write legislation that modernizes environmental management in the state, whose main enabling legislation dates to 1977. Working with key organizations in the state, legislators and experts in energy and lawmaking, the 2019 bill will make emissions reductions targets ambitious, binding and enforceable, and connect them to a broader economic model of prosperity for the state. Through examining “best practices” in other states and assisting with the creation of a feasibility study of these legislative changes, the lab is working to make more ambitious action on climate change a reality in Rhode Island.
Looking forward to 2019 and beyond
Together, these unique and timely projects represent a new direction and a continuation of earlier work by the Climate and Development Lab. After nearly a decade of bringing students to the UN climate negotiations and working on issues of justice between wealthy and poor nations, we are turning our attention to our own nation’s capital. Here, we are building upon the leading role the lab has taken in advancing efforts in Rhode Island on climate change from the 2010 and 2014 bills signed into law and four years of work on carbon pricing legislation from 2015-2018. The goal is to provide useful and inspiring research and policy interventions, partner with key groups and agencies at all levels, and build civic engagement for Brown University students to become leaders in advancing a low-emission, sustainable and just society.