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Whitehouse’s Energy, Environment & Ocean Leaders Day presses on climate change efforts

October 15, 2019, Providence – The tone of Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s 10th annual Energy, Environment, and Ocean Leader’s Day was decidedly more direct when addressing the climate change discussion.

Whitehouse is well-known for his passionate commentary on all subjects related to climate change, both for his native Rhode Island and the nation, as well as his fiery climate change talks, “Time to Wake Up,” of which he has given to Congress 254 times.

“Climate denial is a castle that you might want to take over, occupy, and tear down, but you can bang your head against the castle wall [to get in], or you can look for the lock,” he told a large crowd at the Rhode Island Convention Center on October 4. “And I’m looking for those tumblers in the lock.”

Whitehouse explained that things are finally changing across the country; the tumblers are lining up. Climate change is visual, it is happening before our eyes, and the impacts are being felt in real time.

“The business community gets it, and 10 years ago they couldn’t give a hot damn about the environment.”

Rhode Island State Treasurer Seth Magaziner used a catchphrase from the wildly popular Game of Thrones franchise to introduce his comments on the subject.

“The climate crisis is here. It’s not a ‘winter is coming’ thing. It’s here and the wall has been breached.” According to the treasurer, groups like Citizens United and “dark money” are the biggest barriers to progress in the fight to adequately address climate change.

With six inches of sea level rise recorded in Rhode Island in the last 30 years (with rates accelerating), Magaziner said, “It’s more important than ever that we invest in resilience projects, and work on restoring our marshes.”

Magaziner, who worked both as an elementary school teacher in Louisiana and at Boston-based, socially responsibly investment firm Trillium Asset Management prior to becoming Rhode Island’s state treasurer, said the climate investment idea is not new territory for him.

“I’ve been in that space for over a decade now and there’s been a growing support for these ideas and efforts,” he said, echoing Whitehouse’s comments. “It’s not so lonely on those conference calls now.”

Cherly LaFleur, former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, told the audience that the “climate genie is out of the bottle.” LaFleur, who served on FERC from 2019 to 2019, said she had three wishes for that climate genie:

  • That we respond to the climate challenge on the level of the challenge itself (climate change must be fought at a global, national, and state level);
  • That we truly take advantage of all the resources at our disposal to fight climate change (utilizing gas and renewables in areas where possible, and looking to electrical storage); and;
  • That society support the infrastructure needed to fight climate change (including upgrades to the Grid)

“The physical configuration of the system was built for the old world,” she said. “In the new world, large-scale wind, solar, and hydro resources will need to be harnessed where it makes sense economically, so we need to bring the infrastructure to the economic centers.”

Matthew Eby, founder and executive director of First Street Foundation, a research and technology nonprofit examining the nation’s flood risk, said his organization is focused on flooding because it is a symptom of climate change, and the most costly natural disaster in the United States.

There have been more than $1 trillion in flooding-related damages since 1980, Eby said. One of the problems acting against homeowners across the nation is that maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) severely underestimate flood risk. With this in mind, Eby said his organization began looking at tidal models, and home transactions, and was able to prove that there has been $15.9 billion in lost home value to-date in 18 states, including Rhode Island, from tidal flooding impacts.

Eby has assembled a team of more than 65 world renowned scientists and academics to calculate the past, present, and future flood risk of every property in the United States. This data, which will be distributed to the public for free on, will address an asymmetry of knowledge in the U.S. housing market.

For more information on Rhode Island’s own database of flood and storm risk assessments, go to and explore the map journals, RI e911 exposure assessment, STORMTOOLS’ Coastal Environmental Risk Index (CERI) and the STORMTOOLS Design Elevation (SDE) maps.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood Jr., president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, began with a basketball analogy, describing how technology has changed the way the game is viewed, in terms of how he views the climate crisis.

“You can see everything now. Technology allows every perspective, and I want to give us the perspective of the people yelling and screaming the most,” he told the audience. “This is the lunch counter moment” for young people of color in the 21st century.

The climate change movement is a silo-ed, progressive movement, and it won’t work that way, Yearwood said. We put Black Lives Matter in one box, the women’s movement in another, the immigration issue in another, LGBTQ rights in another. He outlined strategies for success going forward.

“We must have a multi-cultural, multi-issue, grassroots-based, people of color-led movement,” he said. “We must continue to have mass demonstrations like global climate strikes that make the visual determination and breadth of our movement, but also recognize the power of the ‘suits.’ We must have a massive turnout on Election Day, particularly by women, people of color, young people, progressives, and everyone else who understands how not voting and not making people respect our vote” impacts us. “We must make sure we have a bold climate action plan for a progressive new Congress and new president, and must be ready to move things forward.”

Yearwood said that the nation has climate deniers is akin to having Jim Crow deniers – the same madness, and worse. He also cited climate activist Greta Thunberg’s efforts: “She’s a front-runner, if you’re a gambling person. She doesn’t want you to have hope. She wants you to panic: the house is on fire.

“What are we willing to sacrifice? As great as our country is, there are times that our country doesn’t do right, and there are times people have to put their bodies against the machine and grind it to a halt,” he said. “It wasn’t pretty, but what we’re doing right now has to be the equivalent.” For more information on Yearwood’s Hip Hop Caucus, go to


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