Innovation Ecosystem

Managing the messaging around climate change

An interview with Paul Tencher, the communications consultant helping to guide the roll out of a list of infrastructure projects for the Providence Resiliency Partnership

Photo by Richard Asinof

The forecast from the pedestrian bridge in Providence: rising waters threaten the river walk through downtown Providence, a consequence of climate change.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/26/21
An interview with Paul Tencher, the communications consultant helping the Providence Resiliency Partnership brand its messaging around creating a list of infrastructure projects to protect against the threats of climate change.
At what point will businesses make a decision not to invest in furthering the perverse relationship with fossil fuels? How can the lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic around the pervasiveness of racial and social disparities around health care be applied to work on climate change? What kind of data analysis needs to be applied to the threats of toxic contaminants in our food, water and air and their relationship to chronic diseases? How important is it to identify the sources of dark money that are fueling misinformation around climate change and around vaccine reluctance?
Weather reports, much like traffic reports, are a staple of the news programming in Rhode Island for TV and radio stations. Imagine if those reports contained messaging that supported taking immediate action to protect against the threats from climate change, as a public service to Rhode Islanders?
Today, no one questions the wisdom of wearing seat belts or not smoking in public. What will it take for a similar sea change in public perception around messaging that climate change is real, the threats are immediate, and it requires that the business community take immediate action.

PART Two

PROVIDENCE – The alarm bells keep sounding when it comes to the threats from climate change. As Washington Post reporters Sarah Kaplan and Brady Dennis detailed in their story, “Amid summer of fire and floods, a moment of truth for climate action,” the ravaging floods and incidences of extreme heat are the latest in a string of warnings that the planet is hurtling down a treacherous path.

“What more can numbers show us that we cannot already see? What more can statistics say about the flooding, the wildfires, the droughts and hurricanes and other deadly events?” United Nations Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa told a gathering of energy and environment ministers from G-20 nations, as reported by Kaplan and Brady in their July 24 story. “Numbers and statistics are invaluable, but what the world requires now, more than anything else, is climate action.”

Here in Rhode Island, a new partnership, created by local developer Arnold Buff Chace, Jr., is attempting to align the business community and the institutional sector to take action in a series of targeted infrastructure investments.

In PART One, ConvergenceRI interviewed Chace, as he explained the origins of the initiative. In PART Two, ConvergenceRI talks with Paul Tencher, a communications consultant hired by Chace to help brand the new partnership.

ConvergenceRI: What is your role in helping to shape the communications and messaging for the Providence Resiliency Partnership?
TENCHER: Buff [Chace] brought me on as a communications consultant about six months ago to rebrand the organization. We have had some great clips early on – a big front page story in the ProJo, a great story in PBN, and some other kinds of peripheral stories.

We’ve been managing a process to launch an infrastructure list [of projects] that we hope to [generate] significant press about, but more importantly, put a list out to the public as priority infrastructure projects that our federal delegation can draw upon.

We are in the final stages right now of gathering that list. Our member scientists and advocates and public officials are reviewing that list, and we’ve put up pretty significant social media around it, and email. We are trying to go through that list to hopefully launch it, probably right after Labor Day.

ConvergenceRI: Have you settled on the name?
TENCHER: Buff established the [Providence Resiliency Partnership] two years ago, and it was dormant for a while. He brought me on in January of 2021 to relaunch and rebrand. That’s where we are.

ConvergenceRI: I saw the story in The Providence Journal in March,, and my initial response was that you were pushing all the traditional buttons. How are you defining your audience moving forward, in a very disruptive news environment?
TENCHER: We have certain stakeholders we definitely want to focus on – certainly close insiders, environmentalists, the public at large, because we feel it is our job, especially in Providence, to make the community come together, to get them [aligned] around a set of projects that the community needs but where there is not community buy-in.

A lot of this came from the fact that Sen. Whitehouse, during the appropriations process, and the earmark process, hasn’t been able to get the projects [funded] he knows are important and vital, not because of anyone’s fault, but because everyone is busy and [folks] do not have the resources or the expertise to put together resiliency strategy and resiliency plans.

Certainly, [the target audience is] the public at large – Providence elected officials, the environmental community – but we also want to make sure that it has community buy-in, so, we want broad-based support, not only from people on the East Side, but from the West End and from the Port area.

And so, obviously, we’re focused on Providence, we’re a city-state, and it is important for the entire state that the city is resilient, in battling the effects of climate change.

ConvergenceRI: One of the projects that I have reported on is an effort led by Linda Perri, who is the leader of the Washington Park Neighborhood Association, you may be familiar with it, the idea is to plant 5,000 trees in five years in 02905. Is that the kind of resiliency project that you may be looking at?
TENCHER: Parts of it. If you go on our website, you can see the different criteria we have for our projects. Some definitely are heat projects, like you are talking about, things that reduce exposure. We also have boots-on-the-ground, shovel-ready infrastructure.

Some of the projects we have discussed, such as the Woonasquatucket corridor and the greenway, are projects that build resiliency, adapt to sea level rise, and adapt to upland flooding.

There is a big issue, the fact that we do not have a unified flood model for the city of Providence. Different people use different models to track the [water] tables and also for planning.

One of things that we want to fund is a flood model that incorporates all of [Providence], including the hurricane barrier community as part of it.

The port has been a big issue; the port is pretty low lying, so we definitely need to do work with the port, but that also means that we create economic opportunity, because the port can be a lot better than fossil fuel storage.

We’ve gotten great feedback from the community; we have a good number of potential projects that we are sorting through. We want more projects.

One of the things that we found is that a lot of people know that this is an issue, but they don’t know how to create plans, detailed plans that the delegation needs to fund the projects.

We are working on a plan to figure out how to get communities and institutions that know they need resiliency plans and adaptation plans to figure out how we can get consultants to work on those. That is where we basically are right now.

ConvergenceRI:: How do you change the perceptions of the business community, in many cases, where sometimes they have the wrong metrics that they are using around what is business-friendly, and what isn’t, when you are talking about resiliency?
TENCHER: It has to be in showing concrete ways what is environmentally friendly.

ESGs [Environmental, social, and governance criteria, a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments] are a big buzzword right now. Businesses have bought into ESGs – just look at the amount of funds that are being created on the ESG side of things.

You look at what Goldman Sachs and other companies are doing, they are investing in renewable energy, they are investing in sustainability.

In some ways, I think Rhode Island is more parochial, when you look at the people across the country, because whether it is for good intention or because it is a new fad, people are investing in sustainability.

If you look at our website, most of our members represent all kinds of corporate citizens in Providence, and they absolutely see the need for the work that we are focused on, which is adaptation and resiliency infrastructure.

We have not run into problems [of perception], because we are really focused on bringing resources to Rhode Island. We are not asking the companies or institutions that are part of this [partnership] to spend their money. They will have to, at some point. But we are asking them to help us advocate for the public resources that can help.

For example, Barnaby Evans and RISD are very concerned about the river walk. We will have to raise the river walk at some point. But, who is going to pay for that?

The Hurricane Barrier is a pretty good example of public funds going to good use. I would say that the Hurricane Barrier is in really good shape, because it has been maintained over the years. There are certain things we need to worry about around the Hurricane Barrier like sewage pipes and valves turning on and off.

But we have not seen businesses [view this work as] controversial. Most of the businesses, including institutions like Brown, RISD and URI, have been helpful.

ConvergenceRI: It sounds like the business community has bought into your messaging around resiliency.
TENCHER: I think if you ask all the companies to switch from natural gas to using only solar, then with those added costs,  there is going to some resistance because of costs for businesses.

We are focused on making sure that the [several] thousand small businesses that respond the dangers of severe flooding from a 100-year storm from a major hurricane, we are focused on making sure that we can protect them.

Does that mean [constructing] berms along the Woonasquatucket so that the river system doesn’t flood?

We are hoping that we as a community can come together around a plan so that it can get funded by the federal government – and maybe somewhat by the state and local governments.

ConvergenceRI: What type of launch are you planning for after Labor Day?
TENCHER: We hope to have the project list ready. It is not going to be the end-all list.  The Providence Preservation Society does a list every year of historical buildings most at risk. In a similar way, these are projects that we feel are critical to having community support, and that Sen. Whitehouse hopefully can go out and get some funding for, working with his colleagues on the next infrastructure appropriations bill.

We hope to launch that list after Labor Day.

ConvergenceRI: What haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?
TENCHER: The membership of the [partnership] is really important. We spend a lot of time making sure that the community feels very involved, from people like Buff, who are job creators, to Brown, which has been intricately involved, along with the other academic institutions.

We have assembled a very, very wide stakeholder group, where almost everyone isa volunteer. They are all working hard on making sure that Providence can have a really good community-wide plan.

In fact, a lot of good work is being done in the neighborhoods, but it is not being done at the scale of the city or certainly at the state level.

We are trying to bring together institutions and the private sector to help get the public sector the resources and expertise they need. No matter what we do, the effects of climate change are not going to go away in the next decade, and so we have be prepared for that. That is what our mission is.

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