Students who do cool things: Camila Bustos ’16, Mara Freilich ’15, and Sophie Purdom ’16

Senator Whitehouse speaking at the event to promote the Resilient RI Act and other climate change initiatives.

Senator Whitehouse speaking at the event to promote the Resilient RI Act and other climate change initiatives.

On Thursday, March 20th, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave a special legislative briefing on federal climate change initiatives, and more specifically, the Resilient Rhode Island Act. While you may know that State Rep. Art Handy and State Senator Susan Sosnowski hosted the event at the Capital building downtown, you might not know that the Resilient RI Act would not have been possible without a group of dedicated, driven, and eco-friendly students from our very own Brown University.

We sat down with Camila Bustos ’16, Mara Freilich ’15, and Sophie Purdom ’16,  three of the student interns working on the Resilient RI Act, that seeks to make Rhode Island better equipped to address climate change, to talk a little bit about the event, what they’ve contributed, and what they really think about the dining halls.

BlogDH: So you guys are involved in something called the Resilient Rhode Island Act. Can you explain what that is for me?

Camila: Yeah, so, this is a piece of legislation we’re trying to get passed with Representative Art Handy and a group of consultants. And, basically, it’s legislation that combines mitigation and adaptation efforts in the face of climate change in Rhode Island.

BlogDH: What are you guys, as students, doing? Or what are your specific contributions and responsibilities with the act?

Sophie: I would just say that there are definitely more than the three of us. There’s been about five interns every semester, so there were five people that stayed here over winter break and worked on it, and there’s five people working right now, and there will be people following up over the summer.

BlogDH: When did the first round of interns start?

Sophie: This winter. And it’s been nicely supported by the administration, and we work specifically with Professor of Environmental Sociology Timmons Roberts, and he’s been in the news a lot lately winning various awards and such. He’s a great guy. And there are two consultants as well, Ken Payne, who was the Rhode Island Senate Policy Council Chair, and he currently helps to run the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, and there’s Meg Kerr, who is an environmental consultant and [is[ basically  really great at running campaigns.

Camila: There’s also a lot of student volunteers working on this. So, besides the interns, there’s another team, particularly from the Rhode Island Student Climate Coalition, but there are also just individual students who have helped us with different things.

Sophie: And there’s opportunities for lots more people to get involved —lots of students, or community members as well. It’s, like, a very inclusive project. And that’s not to say that the interns are… we’re not exclusive in any way. So we encourage everybody to reach out to us and get involved.

BlogDH: Where did the project start? Like at Brown, with this professor, or did they pull Brown kids in?

Camila: So this kind of legislation has been introduced in the past five or six years. It was introduced originally as the Global Warming Solutions Act with Massachusetts, and Massachusetts passed it, but Rhode Island didn’t. Representative Handy has tried to pass a similar legislation in the past years. Only basic mitigation, but it hasn’t passed. After the Brown Divest Coal decision, there were a lot of students who were in support of climate change action supported by the university. So, a group of students met with President Paxson and they all decided that this was a great way for Brown to support climate change action instead of divestment. So this is where the interns and Professor Timmons come in. But this project has been going on for a while and there’s a lot of state efforts to improve efficiency and to become more resilient.

Sophie: So it’s definitely… yes we use the space at Brown, and yes it’s supported by Brown, but it’s a community effort from diverse ages, interests… everybody wears different hats and all of that kinda stuff. And other universities —  the Resilient Rhode Island team had a panel at URI last night.

BlogDH: So what’s the status of the Resilient Rhode Island right now and what the next step would be?

Sophie: So just to break down what we’ve been working on over the past year, Art Handy has been championing this bill, which is mimicking similar-type things. We’ve been really successful in Massachusetts, working on carbon emissions and all that, and so that’s the background impetus for it. And then starting over winter break, the five interns did lots and lots of background research, and took comparative city programs, like other policies, specific Rhode Island sectors, gathering lots of data, and started to draft the text of the legislation. And that’s where Ken Payne, one of our comes in, because he’s very talented at writing complex pieces of climate legislation. So over break, people did lots of background research and due diligence and then it transitioned into writing the text of the bill. That was a whole experience in learning how to write legislation and everything that goes along with that. The bill got submitted to the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources last week, and that’s a huge step. It has to go through a lot of other processes before it gets totally ratified and everything, but for now we’re transitioning into a big campaign push, helping to build on lots of the community support that we’ve been working on for years.

BlogDH: So just to be clear, the act is running through the Rhode Island state legislature?

Sophie: Yes.

BlogDH: Do you see a future for this on the national level? Or are you doing anything nationally with it?

Sophie: So this is building off of lots of other states’ efforts, but making it Rhode Island specific. So the idea is that states take charge of doing the best they can in terms of emissions and resiliency to climate change. I would support a national climate movement, but it’s coming in light of there being lots of other legislative action in Rhode Island and nationally.

Mara: The bill is written conscious of this being a state effort. It is written particular to the situation in Rhode Island and Rhode Island’s government situation, Rhode Island’s economical/political/social situation, but it’s also written conscious of being a state. I don’t think the future of climate legislation is state by state pushes, but this is part of a push to say that everybody needs to be doing everything they can at all times.

Sophie: Maybe we can give you a brief background on what’s been happening in the state recently. There’s been an executive order.

Camila: Governor Chaffee passed an executive order stating that climate change is an important concern for the state and that we need to basically prepare for it. So this was really, really exciting because it’s I think the first time that an executive agency in Rhode Island is so outspoken about climate change. Again, though, we need a more comprehensive effort, and not just a set of executive orders that won’t necessarily live on from governor to governor.

Mara: We need quantitative goals, as well.

BlogDH: What’s the coolest thing you’ve done as a part of this team?

Mara: I think the coolest thing for me —well, I’ve been involved in climate change nationally, legislatively, on Rhode Island, very locally —but the coolest thing is the number of diverse groups that are really, really interested in this. So the number of people we reached out to and talked to, but also the number of people who’ve been reaching out to us and saying, “We really, really want to do this!” And definitely the amount of attention that this effort’s gotten so far. I’m really excited for the Senator Whitehouse event this afternoon, I think that’s really cool and really unique.

BlogDH: On that note, can you guys just quickly give a summary of what this event is and what its purpose is?

Mara: Senator Whitehouse won’t be lobbying explicitly for the bill. He’ll be there to talk to the Rhode Island legislature about climate change. It’s actually sponsored by the Rhode Island Senate, and not the House, and the bill hasn’t actually yet been introduced in the Senate. But he’s aware of the bill, and he knows the details of what’s going on. So this event is just to raise the profile of climate change as much as we can in law, and then we’re doing parallel events to raise the profile of climate change as much as we can in society.

BlogDH: So does anyone else have a cool thing they want to share?

Camila: This may be super nerdy, but I really like learning about legislation. I have never ever been able to look at a bill and understand what each symbol and each section really meant. And it’s not obvious to me, I’m not an expert by now, but I definitely have a better grasp of what a piece of legislation for Rhode Island looks like, and how one word, like the different between “shall” to “should” or “could” can change so much of a document.

Mara: I mean, each of us can point to some place where, like, we wrote that in Google Docs, or in emails or notes to each other, and it ended up in the final draft.

Sophie: And the theme of collaboration and teamwork between everybody that’s working on this effort is crazy. Like, nobody’s in charge, everybody brings their own ideas to the table and their own expertise. Ken has, like, sixty more years experience than we do, but that doesn’t mean our ideas are discounted in any way. Something I found fascinating and also empowering is just being able to talk to such a diverse constituency about climate change, and relating it to not being, like, a burden on them, but a positive thing — there are positive opportunities for everybody. And trying to identify the constituents and the great things that come out of this bill and the opportunities toward becoming a resilient Rhode Island is really exciting… great practice in talking to people and framing issues while doing good at the same time is really cool.

BlogDH: And then I have one, final question for all of you. Ratty or V-Dub?

Sophie: Off meal plan!

Mara: (at the same time) Off meal plan!

Camila: (also at the same time) Off meal plan!

Sophie: Wait, seriously?!

Camila: Wowwww. West House. That’s what’s up.

Sophie: You’re talking to a real environmental group right here.

For more information about how you can get involved, visit www.ResilientRI.org. 

Image via Cody Zeger ’14

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