Convergence RI | In the gathering storm on climate, how do we act together?

By: Richard Asinof

PROVIDENCE –Do you pay heed to any of the natural weather signs around you?Are you apt to give providence [pun intended] to when you see dark cloud formations gathering on the horizon with your own eyes?Do you roll down the windows in your car when approaching a dangerous intersection, to hear the threat of any oncoming traffic with your own ears?When a storm is approaching, can you perceive the changes in the air by what your nose smells and your tongue tastes?

I do. Particularly when writing a news story about the efforts coming together to create a community infrastructure partnership to address the challenges of the urgent climate threats we all face.

Boom! A clap of thunder breaks my concentration as I transcribe an interview with Buff Chace, co-founder, and Michele Jalbert, executive director of the Providence Resilience Partnership. Crack! The darkening sky is lit up and pierced again by another brilliant flash of lightning.

Call it ominous. A wave of thunderstorms roared through the city early Friday evening, bringing with it a wave of lightning strikes, captured in a series of magnificent photos by Mike Cohea.

Call it serendipitous. The interview took place on the very day that President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reconciliation Act, filled with some $700 billion in federal funding opportunities to begin to address the infrastructure investments needed to adapt to climate changes already rapidly occurring. Yet the urgent challenges to transition away from fossil fuels still loom before us.

Call it urgent. Last week, a sudden, ferocious downpour caused an onrush of flooding that halted westbound traffic on Route 195 for more than an hour, a precursor to what our world may look like as it succumbs to the very real threats of increased violent weather patterns, a harbinger of the climate changes already occurring. Are you listening? Are you paying attention?

This summer, much of the nation – and the world – is coping with major drought conditions. Rivers and lakes are drying up; agricultural lands are parched. Yet, at the same time, there have been five once-in-a-thousand-year rainstorms, according to a recent New York Times report.

Here in Providence, a relatively new group, recently incorporated as a nonprofit, the Providence Resilience Partnership, is seeking to create a way to anticipate and to understand where the threats are greatest to the city – and, based on that data-driven threat assessment, make recommendations for how best to marshal state and federal investments to build a more resilient future for the city and its inhabitants.

As Executive Director Jalbert described it, the initial focus of the Providence Resilience Partnership is to serve as a catalyst, funding “a comprehensive climate vulnerability assessment of the whole city.” Then, working in entrepreneurial fashion, the Partnership will seek to braid together state and federal resources to create a plan of action to build up the city’s resilience, in the face of the urgent climate change threats.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Buff Chace and Michele Jalbert, as they articulate their vision for how to align and to connect all the different groups working on the climate change challenges facing the city. The focus is on not what will happen on Election Day, but on what needs to happen in the days, weeks, and months following the electoral process.

ConvergenceRI: I am curious about where Providence Resilience Partnership is in its process? What’s the agenda? What are the targets moving forward? And, where you see the challenges?
CHACE: That’s why I asked Michele to join the call. Michele, you might want to give some of your background.

JALBERT: I grew up in Rhode Island. I have never actually worked in Rhode Island until this. It is really a wonderful opportunity to do fascinating work in our capital city and to really learn about a new area.

My background immediately prior to this was in safer chemicals. I worked with UMass Lowell on the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council, and helped to stand that up as an independent organization. That was a fascinating opportunity to work with corporate players to help them make moves toward safer, more sustainable chemistries in their products.

Before that, I worked on Capital Hill. About 15 years ago, I spent about four years on the Hill, and then, I have worked in varying dimensions of advocacy work since then, primarily in the chemical space, but also again, regional advocacy work.

What fascinated me about this opportunity to work with [PRP] were a couple of things, One, I think, was the creative and intellectual powerhouse that came together and founded this. Obviously, you had people like Buff and Curt Spalding and Barnaby Evans and Pam Rubinoff, all these people who are thinking and working to help the community. And, to help address an issue that is getting more and more urgent and acute.

So, obviously, my skill set is around things like building an organization, putting it together, turning it from an informal group into more of a formal organization. We are working through that process now, but it really was the chance to work with this team, and also on issues that are really practical.

You know, you learn about the impacts on different communities in the city and you begin to dig in on things that can really make a fundamental difference in people’s experience.

I am fascinated by the concept of resilience, personal resilience, and community resilience, and all of those dimensions, so it’s been a wonderful opportunity to try and get into this, with Buff and his team. I am very grateful that they hired me.

So, I think for the PRP, this is really about where we move from being an informal group of passionate people to more of a formal organization. Part of what we want to be positioned to do is to go after federal money and state money, to help support the city. And that requires a formal entity. We are at the end of the process of standing that up.

ConvergenceRI: Are you officially incorporated as a nonprofit, a 501(c) 3?
JALBERT: We are a 501(c) 3. And, that has just been completed, that process. It takes a little bit of time to get that done.

That positions us as we see some of the federal infrastructure funding rolling out. We see all of the possibilities in the bill [the Inflation Reconciliation Act] that I believe President Biden will sign in two hours.

We want to be positioned to help partner with the city and other organizations to address these issues. We don’t anticipate being a huge organization. Buff might argue with me on that. But, as a catalyst, I think we can make connections, because we are plugging in all over the place.

We are plugging in to all different departments in the city, with different nonprofits, with different places where people are doing work. And, one of the main things we want to go after in the next two months is funding a comprehensive climate vulnerability assessment of the whole city, and pay for it with federal funds.

There is obviously some entrepreneurship [required] in getting that done. But the idea is, we need data to evaluate what investments make the most sense for the city.

We are not looking to displace any existing organizations. There is phenomenal work that has been done, by the city and others, such as the Climate Justice Plan, the Hazard Mitigation Plan, all of those things. But what we want to try to do is to bring an additional technical analysis to this, build on those different plans, and basically, be able to share with the new mayor next year, where does it make sense to go after federal funding for investment in infrastructure and other things to help build a more resilient city across the board.

ConvergenceRI: A quick question about concept. You chose the word “catalyst.” I think one of the big problems that many groups face is that they are operating in silos. They have their territory; they have their turf. And, they don’t necessarily communicate very well with each other, except to, as Robert Frost once said of his neighbor building a stone wall between them, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
JALBERT: I couldn’t agree more. It is a big challenge. But, that is what we see as an opportunity to do here. Which is, to honor the work that is being done by everyone. And, to find ways to build bridges.

A lot of my time in the first few months, as an example, was building bridges with the city. Meeting people, understanding what they are trying to do, understanding the challenges they face, and figuring out ways that we could partner with the city to address certain issues.

There are many different organizations we are seeking to build relationships with, because we are strongest in dealing with this when we have everyone at the table. It is something that takes time, you have work at it, to build trust, to work through all of that.

I hate the word silo, because it is such a pejorative word.

ConvergenceRI: What word would you rather use?
JALBERT: I don’t know. I think that “individually focused” is an apt phrase to describe it, but it’s also a bit pejorative. I know exactly what you mean, and I agree. But there might be a better word. I have to think on it.

CHACE: I think so many of these organizations, whether government or private, just feel overwhelmed by their charge. And so, we’re hoping that by fostering a collaborative approach, it will help everybody to feel like, yes, we can get our arms around this massive challenge. And, I think that is kind of the approach that we are trying to communicate with others.

JALBERT: What we’re trying to do a source of information, a source of data, and a connection point. As an example, I came across, a toolkit that Harvard had built, along with another organization, for health care providers dealing with [excessive] heat in the community. Literally, down to the level, if you have asthma, here are the things you need to be thinking about. There were worksheets for patients, worksheets for physicians, so I distributed that to the HEZ [health equity zones] folks across the state.

That’s a way that to take something you see, because we are working in this space all the time, and to get it to the people who can actually make a difference on the ground, as the temperatures exceed 90-plus degrees. It is that kind of constant connection and building different ways across barriers, perhaps silos, whatever you want to call it. Which is an important part of our work.

ConvergenceRI: Recently, I spoke with Linda Perri, a community activist out of Washington Park…
CHACE: We know Linda well. I have a high regard for her.

ConvergenceRI: She’s pushing her initiative again, 5,000 trees in five years for ZIP code 02905. And, in particular, after the article that was in the Providence Journal about the city’s’ heat islands, one of the big problems in planting trees in South Providence is that there are no curbs. She spoke with me about the need to create a civilian conservation corps of work groups to build those curbs in South Providence so that the trees could be planted. It doesn’t seem to me to be a huge, expensive project, but in terms of resilience on the neighborhood level, it might make sense, Is that something that you folks would be interested in?
JALBERT: I have actually talked to Linda about that project, and one of the things we are looking into is the just passed climate bill [Inflation Reconciliation Act] include a lot of money for forestry, and urban forestry in particular. One of the things that I could see us doing in that project is helping find out where and how money might be pursued for that type of a project.

ConvergenceRI: I think there are also some data needs for that project. Was that also something you could be involved with, because you mentioned data?
JALBERT: Definitely. That, to me, is part of what the overall vulnerability assessment leads to, giving us a road map to resilient climate actions, and trees and canopy covers is an important element of managing climate change.

Obviously, there are many other [projects] that need to flow from understanding where the vulnerability is. Part of it is also [being] able to understand and able to assess different strategies for resilience – and then you find the money for them.

It’s this entrepreneurial process of [securing] funding to help get some of these things done – knowing what passes at the legislative level and in Congress and then how it turns into programs over subsequent months. The devil is in the details, but I think there may be opportunities in this bill for this program. I think she’s been an advocate for this for a number of years, I think this may be one of the most favorable times to try and see this [happen].

ConvergenceRI: I listened to the debate between the Democratic candidates for Governor yesterday on WPRO. It wasn’t until the absolute closing statements that anyone talked about the climate urgency. And that was by Matt Brown. So, it seems like at least when it comes to talking about what the candidates want to do, it is sort of way down on the list on what the candidates see as their priorities – at least as expressed in this debate.

My question is: How do you see your efforts to change the priorities around resilience in terms of a way that changes the political perception that addressing climate change shouldn’t be an after thought?
JALBERT: Did you see the debate that was held at Rhode Island College?

ConvergenceRI: The one sponsored by the Environmental Council of Rhode Island? Yes, I listened to part of that.
JALBERT: I will say, in the context of that audience, which was obviously focused on that issue, climate change was the first thing they talked about. And, across the board, all of them talked about it. I would say, one of the big challenges we have, is the number of big concerns that people have right now, about so many things. We’ve got inflation, we’ve got so many different real concerns that people have right now that are immediate, that you almost have to wade through them to get to the focus on climate.

But, I was heartened by the fact that all of the candidates were focused on climate and climate resilience in that context. Does it happen when it gets to the larger issue set? It gets muted and it gets bumped down.

ConvergenceRI: Before a targeted audience, I am sure that the candidates are excellent on their talking points about what they say. My experience is that that changes the minute they go in front of a larger audience. That’s all. Maybe I’m cynical.
JALBERT: I think part of what we are dealing with here is that there are so many massive issues right now, that they are trying to break through on different dimensions, that climate isn’t where it needs to be yet, in terms of the top priority.

CHACE: That’s what I was going to say. There is a communications component here, too, Richard, that is part of our agenda that we need to get our arms around, about what our agenda actually is and can be.

It is an election year. And I think, in some ways, we are looking at post-election, and dealing with the new elected officials, as opposed to getting [involved] with the campaign. But maybe that’s a mistake. We are not really ready.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have a message? Back in my communications days, I used to say: the media is often a dog and pony show, you get to bark three times, you get three “arfs,” and an “arf” is defined as a message that you can say in 15-25 words in three breaths…
CHACE and JALBERT: [laughter]

ConvergenceRI: …as a way to focus attention on an issue. So, if I were to ask you, what your three “:arfs” were, for your work, what would they be? You get to bark three times: ruff, ruff ruff.
CHACE: There are a lot of “arfs.” And there is also a timely component to it, too. For instance, if we have a storm in the next two months, it ‘s going to be way in the forefront of people’s minds.

Michele mentioned heat, and that was last week’s story. We were able to have an op-ed piece on that. But we are actually in dialogue with similar kind of organization in Charleston, South Carolina, and also hope to be in Savannah, talking to them on their issues very much around heat and the public health prospects of that.

But, I also think today, or yesterday, it’s all running together, talking about king tides and high tides and flooding.

I’d say we are in the early stages of understanding how to get people’s attention, and how to be effective. You know, the woman at the city who was working, who has since left, Leah Bamberger, who was working on this Climate Justice Plan, which the city published. We think it’s good.

In that effort, the city wasn’t really focusing on these other things that we are talking about. We feel that those need to be brought forward as well.

And, the things that Linda [Perri] is proposing seems like relatively easy thing to do. But, like affordable housing issues, it is not just planting the trees, it’s getting the people in the neighborhood on board with it, the value of that, taking care of the trees, or being part of a group that takes care of the trees, and understanding that it is part of a larger system.

It’s a big job, and when I say that, I don’t mean to be sound like I am shirking from it. It’s just that Michele is very good at focusing on next steps, and I’m sort of behind here, thinking of the big picture. And, just very candidly, the awareness I now have about resilience, it is a much bigger word than I ever had thought, and I feel tremendous responsibility around that.

And, as you point out, Richard, how do you communicate that in a way that brings people together, or gets them on board, rather than just scaring them away.

Actually, I would be very personally interested in your suggestions around that, as a communications person.

ConvergenceRI: I would be happy to sit down and go over my experiences with you, not necessarily as part of this interview. At one point, I was the communications director for Environmental Action, in Washington, D.C., which was the founder of Earth Day, along with Sen. Gaylord Nelson.
JALBERT: I would love to do that. Because the other piece of this is I think in resilience there is also opportunities for transformation. So, obviously there is a protective element in trying to prevent costs and harm and damage. I think also for communities, there is a different transformative dimension to them. And that’s why I think it’s a really exciting thing to think about.

ConvergenceRI: And, sometimes it is thinking in different ways about different audiences, and what they respond to. And, being able to test out the messages that work. We are bombarded by some much information today, people tend to not read a lot, but I believe they actually do read, if they find it’s of value.

People are looking for, and like the idea of connecting the dots. And, I speak to my own success, running ConvegenceRI, which is now going into its 10th year of publication, which in our disrupted media environment, for digital platforms, is amazing. Because I can produce stories that no one else can produce. And, I still seem to ask good questions.

My next question: It’s the day after election day in November, and we have a new Congress, we have new mayor of Providence, we have a new Rhode Island governor, what’s the best way to capitalize at that moment on presenting your plan?
CHACE: I hope personally that we have our plan and our feedback from our Congressional leaders and we have received grants that we have applied for to help us to do further analysis about where the vulnerabilities in the city are. And, to prioritize them.

And, where we can access the funds, say, [to address] the combined sewer overflow. There’s 620 miles of sewer in the city. With the size for the types of storms that we get these days, how do we go about right-sizing it? As you know, many of those departments have been downsized because of budget constraints. So, they are not adequately funded.

I don’t know what the solution is. We’re not going to come with that solution, but we are going to want to engage with the people that [are responsible]. I think it’s a public-private conversation.

JALBERT: I think it goes back to being a catalyst. I think our role is to be highly credible in the data that we bring forward, so that we can add perspective and analysis and support to catalyze actions by the city, because our focus is the city, And really be a partner to the city and bring together different constituencies to help engage on this issue, and push for action.

I don’t know that the day after the election is really the key point, but when the new mayor comes in, we want to be there with information – and with constituencies behind us to push for a focus on climate resilience, to elevate this as a priority.

Obviously, simultaneously, we are working with the Congressional delegation, talking practically every week, as we look at different programs and opportunities and ways to leverage the money that is flowing in this direction.

At the state level, we have some wonderful programs that can also be leveraged to the city, so I think there are always new opportunities. But I think our positioning really needs to be as a catalyst for action, backed by credible data, and a collaborative approach. That is kind of what we want to be known for.

ConvergenceRI: Great answer. I have another question, which is open-ended. What’s the visual image that if you had visual images that you wanted to create for the PRP, what would they be?
JALBERT: Oh, that is a great question? That is a great question.

ConvergenceRI: In asking that question, two things come to mind. I worked as I said earlier, for Environmental Action, and for years, their fundraising appeal was a photograph of the Earth from space, a blue orb surrounded by darkness, with the phrase, “Love Your Mother.”
JALBERT: I remember that so well. It was so distinctive.

ConvergenceRI: I think one idea that you might think about is having a photographic challenge on what people see themselves as Providence, in terms of resilience.
JALBERT: I think that is a very interesting idea.

ConvergenceRI: I think that sometimes we don’t see things. We tend to assume.
JALBERT: I don’t know if you followed the “king tides” project at all, the My Coast Rhode Island project that Pam Rubinoff runs out of URI, that literally has people in the community go out and take pictures during what they call “king tides,” which literally are the precursors of what we are going to see on a much more regular basis as sea levels rise.

They go out into the community and they take pictures. Those are great ways to capture the impact that is coming, in a time when we don’t have a big hurricane blowing through. I love that idea of what images or what visual would capture [the city].

ConvergenceRI: It’s my ability to ask good questions.
CHACE: Can I ask you a question, Richard? This is something that I struggle with a little bit, too. You were talking about looking at the globe and calling it “mother.” We’re looking at the climate change impacts on Providence. It is not just Providence. It’s Pawtucket, it’s East Providence, [calling it] Metro Providence is probably better.

I was advised before Michele came on board that once you got involved in all those cities and towns, that it would make it even more difficult to move forward. And so, we’re the Providence Resilience Partnership. I just wonder what your view is on that: How [do we] get everybody on board that needs to be on board? You don’t have to answer now.

ConvergenceRI: My immediate response is to talk about family.
CHACE: I like that.

ConvergenceRI: The fact is, we are all related and connected to each other. And I’m not sure that the metaphor extends to us all being in the same boat, which I don’t like.
[laughter from Chace and Jalbert]

ConvergenceRI: I do like the idea of thinking about a family, in some way, and how that gets communicated. Perhaps a seat at the family table. Because a lot of people don’t feel that their voices are heard.

CHACE: And, from what we’ve been told by people who know a lot about this stuff is these rain storms that come along with these storms are likely to be as or more damaging than the hurricane itself, because we are draining not only the whole part of northern Rhode Island but southeastern Massachusetts through these river systems.

And so, it is that kind of kind of flooding which we are aware of as a threat. The reason I mention that is that is it does include many other towns besides Providence.

ConvergenceRI: It might be the concept of bioregions, which was popular way back when. The sense of belonging, a lot of times, there have been three or four popular songs that used the phrase, “We belong together.” We should continue this conversation at another time. But, for purposes of this interview, what questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
CHACE: Michele, have you talked with enough specificity about the climate vulnerability analysis that we are linked to?

JALBERT: I would say that I think Boston, with its Climate Ready Boston, was a really good template, and we are, in many respects, less vulnerable than Boston, the process that they used, which was data driven, with community engagement, and then prioritizing a set of climate resilient strategies and projects, is kind of what we are hoping to build with Climate Ready Providence.

We are looking at really doing this in a thoughtful, data-driven way that really will enhance our ability to become a resilient city. The tricky part is, there are a lot of different projects, but the question is: which ones are going to have a meaningful impact in preparing the city, and the different communities, dramatically affected by climate impacts, and how do we prioritize those? We are excited to be doing this work. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but it can be transformational, as I mentioned earlier, it really does.

CHACE: And, when we talk to people about it, they are very responsive, and want to be part of the conversation.

JALBERT: The other thing that really helps on that front, frankly, is that with Climate Ready Boston, it started a decade ago, when we really had to argue about whether climate change existed. And now, literally every other week, there is a headline about a severe weather impact that has caused unprecedented damager. We have been lucky in Providence. But luck is not a plan, and we need a plan.,7442