The state of Rhode Island’s decision last year to sue 21 fossil fuel companies in Providence County Superior Court came prior to the release of the latest National Climate Assessment, in which scientists emphasize, with certainty, that climate change is happening now. According to the lawsuit brought by then-Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, the oil companies have in the past contested the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change and have asserted that their fossil fuel consumer products do not contribute significantly to climate change.

At a hearing Feb. 6 in Providence, past practice indicates the 21 oil companies will attempt to move the suit out of state and into federal court, which they apparently feel is a more favorable venue for them. It is my hope that newly elected Attorney General Neronha, who served with distinction as U.S. Attorney for Rhode Island, will affirm the stance of his predecessor and assert the primacy of our state in order that the lawsuit remain in state court, where it will be deliberated by judges who are fellow stakeholders and are likely familiar with the distinct vulnerability of our state to the impacts of climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has concluded that Rhode Island has already warmed by more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the 20th century. With a shoreline running over 400 miles, it’s no surprise that the state has already seen extensive and disproportionate damage caused by storms exacerbated by climate change, including Superstorm Sandy and the floods of 2010. I have been walking the beaches of Block Island for over 50 years, and I have seen the evidence with my own eyes.

Numerous studies have shown that we can expect more flooded homes, schools and hospitals, as well as damaged infrastructure, such as roads and wastewater treatment plants. Nearly 2,000 historic properties in Rhode Island are at risk from chronic flooding and sea-level rise, according to the state Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

The risk isn’t limited to public and cultural assets, however. According to a Union of Concerned Scientists study, nearly 900 private homes — currently contributing $7,193,565 to the local property tax base — are at risk of becoming chronically inundated by 2045. As recently reported, current real estate prices may already be depressed as a result of the acknowledged risks associated with climate change.

As impacts worsen and become costlier, Rhode Islanders will undoubtedly have to spend millions of dollars to reinforce already stressed infrastructure, flood-proof the power grid, and address more road closures and overwhelmed storm drains caused by more frequent flooding.

We’re already starting to pay some of those costs. Last November, 78 percent of voters approved Ballot Question 3, which supports raising taxes in part to protect the state’s most vulnerable coastlines from erosion and storm surge due to sea-level rise.

But should we have to bear the cost of addressing this problem alone, when those who compelling evidence suggests exacerbated it are allowed to wrap themselves in denial and escape their responsibility? After all, the “polluter pays” principle has long been a key code of environment and public health protection: those responsible for pollution and waste are expected to bear the costs to reduce the pollution and mitigate the damage.

Rhode Island may be the nation’s smallest state, but we were the first to declare independence from the King of England on May 4, 1776. As the stakes are so high for people and the planet, Rhode Island now has the opportunity to be the first state to deliberate this issue with the thoroughness and probity a matter of this importance, to present and future generations, deserves.

The writer is the former executive director of the Champlin Foundation, senior aide to U.S. Senator John Chafee, and state director for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island. He lives on Block Island.

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