Our Economy

Reimagining Rhode Island’s Economy

Climate change is among us, and its impacts are highly complex. Rhode Island is especially at risk from climate change effects because of its vast coastline and reliance on the land and sea for much of the state’s income. Research has proven that Rhode Island is already experiencing warmer mean temperatures, rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events with worse flooding, and degradation of local ecosystem services provided by the natural environment. Sea level rise of the predicted magnitudes will cause devastating flooding, further coastal erosion, economic hardship, and loss of animal and plant species that are characteristic of the region. The future of Rhode Island’s economy relies heavily on the decisions regarding climate change adaptation that are being made right now.

Rhode Island’s economy has been built upon three powerful industries: health services, tourism, and manufacturing. Tourism, which is the second largest industry, produces around 50,000 jobs, and tourism-related sales have topped $6.8 billion. This industry is so strong because environmental conservation has been a priority for many state agencies. Unfortunately, climate change could potentially damage or destroy many of the state’s tourism hot spots, which would severely impact the state’s economy. The pristine beaches, forests, historic coastal towns, and popular bays will all be affected by future sea level rise and extreme weather. Adaptation efforts that are made now will help to prevent economic losses like this in the future. The choices in strategies are to either wait until disaster strikes in order to adjust statewide adaptation efforts or to invest now in a safer future.

Hurricane Sandy demonstrated the huge impact that climate change can have on the local tourism based economy.

Without climate change adaptation, Rhode Island will likely spend between $2.5 and $4.5 billion through the end of the century to recover from just major hurricanes. Also, extreme heat is predicted to worsen drought conditions, and the annual number hot days (over 90 degrees Fahrenheit) is expected to rise from about 5 per year today to about 50-60 per year at the end of the century. Rhode Island is likely to have a similar outcome as neighboring cities such as Boston and Hartford, who by 2100 are predicted to have around 25 hot days every summer. This number could be dramatically reduced if we cut statewide emissions to lower levels. If Rhode Island continues to experience warmer summers and winters, which is expected with current emission trends, the state risks higher pollution levels, damage to agriculture, health risks, and more expensive cooling costs. Higher levels of pollution in waterways around Rhode Island could impact local fishing and shell fishing, as well as contaminate ground water used for drinking. These risks threaten the state’s economy, which gains $50 million annually from its agriculture sector. By 2050, if emissions are still kept at a high level, the winter chilling requirements of high-value fruits will not be met across most of the state. Also, the pollution of drinking water will put local citizens at risk.

However, there is a shining beacon of hope. It all revolves around the word, “adaptation.” This word can be defined as, “an adjustment in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to observed or expected changes in climatic stimuli and their effects and impacts in order to alleviate adverse impacts of change or take advantage of new opportunities.” Climate change adaptation efforts in Rhode Island, as well as any other state, are based highly on individual citizen’s response. In order for adaptation efforts to last over a period of time, action on their parts needs to be proactive instead of passive. Fortunately, the state already has much of the foundation needed for mobilizing awareness for change. A related journal article states that, “successful adaptation that balances effectiveness, efficiency and equity through decision-making structures that promote learning and are perceived to be legitimate is an ideal from which much adaptation inevitably diverges.” With a large number of academic institutions, abundance of NGOs, and a small geographic size, Rhode Island has the networks and locally developed efforts necessary for a solid form of adaptation implementation.

There are already a handful of action plans being proposed that could help Rhode Island preserve its regional identity and economic status. The first of which includes having more outreach and support for capacity-building. In other words, local communities should be engaged at the beginning of the adaptation process, as well as, have accessibility to relevant information later on. This will allow for the implementation of adaptation efforts at the individual level. The more the local populations are educated on related issues, the more they will be able to take action on the matters.

A second action plan for adaptation includes boosting collaboration between institutions and individuals. This could motivate the most participation in Rhode Island because of the state’s large number of grassroots organizations, agencies, NGOs, corporations, small businesses, academic institutions, and foundations. Government agencies also have an important role in local climate change adaptation efforts. For example, in 2002 the State of Rhode Island published the Greenhouse Gas Action Plan. This advocated an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the 1990 levels. The Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority is also attempting to reduce air pollution and make buses more fuel-efficient. “One of Rhode Island’s greatest strengths is its wealth of social capital. Capacity in different areas provides foundations for new efforts on climate adaptation.”

A third action plan includes attempting to expand riparian buffers. Riparian buffers are development-free wooded borders along creeks, rivers, lakes and bays. They have innumerable benefits, including shade for neighborhoods, filtration of storm water, and increasing property values. A study in Seattle found that trees have saved the Seattle urban area approximately 355 million cubic feet in avoided storm water retention area, worth an estimated $710 million. This idea could be adopted by Rhode Island and save the future economy lots of money.

Rhode Island’s economic future relies on the decisions made by its citizens today. It is a large burden to undertake, but it is doable. However, in order to make any progress in adaptation efforts, it is necessary to get rid of the disincentives for adaptation. Suggestions for doing this include adjusting state ‘enterprise zones’ away from high-risk areas and defining ‘natural disasters’ in state law to exclude climate disasters in high-risk areas. By shifting enterprise zones, Rhode Island could gradually diminish the economic and safety threats posed by climate change. On a similar note, by excluding climate disasters in the definition of ‘natural disasters’, the state would not have to give tax relief to businesses damaged by forecasted climate change in knowingly high-risk areas. Examples of foreseeable climate disasters include coastal flooding and erosion. This potential change in law would encourage less business development in climate disaster prone areas and the state’s relief money could then go towards other, less foreseeable, disasters. It is important to acknowledge that location-specific firms like maritime-dependent businesses would be exempt from this change in law because these firms do not have the choice of operating elsewhere at the same capacity.

Climate change is here and its effects are already upon us. States can choose to act proactively or passively on the matter, but there is no denying that change will have to happen eventually. Rhode Island’s economy relies heavily on tourism and on its surrounding environments to provide income, all of which are especially at risk from climate change. Adaptation strategies will have long-term benefits such as safer business locations, damage protection, and coastal preservation, but it will also require financial and statewide support.


  • Economic Intersections of Rhode Island: a private sector-generated action agenda
  • Rhode Island Agricultural Partnership
  • RhodeMap RI is a coordinated and forward-looking effort by the state to make Rhode Island a better place to live and work by mobilizing state and community assets in a whole new way. Through RhodeMap RI, the State seeks to strengthen our economy, meet current and future housing needs, and plan for future growth through the development of an integrated plan that will also include strategies for transportation, land use and environmental protection.