Battle With The Sea: Change Is Here (Part 2)

Nov 25, 2014

Last week, we brought you the story of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s visit to Rhode Island. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse brought the Democratic senator, a strong coal advocate, to witness how climate change is wearing away the landscape here. Manchin learned from fishermen what challenges they’re facing in a changing ocean. Rhode Island Public Radio’s environmental reporter Ambar Espinoza brings you the second part of this story, when Manchin sees the effects climate change is having on land. 

In his cottage at Roy Carpenter’s Beach in Matunuck, Kevin McCloskey lays out on his counter several aerial photos of what this beach town looked like in the 1970s and 1980s. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) hover over the photos, listening to stories about buildings the community has had to move because the beach has gradually worn away. McCloskey’s own cottage where he’s invited the senators will move to one of the back rows before next summer.

McCloskey shared aerial photos of what Roy Carpenter's Beach looked like in the 1970s, 1980s, and 2000s.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

McCloskey and Manchin share an exchange.

“So anyway, this is my heaven,” said McCloskey.“Oh my,” responded the West Virginia senator.
“I’m giving this up to go in the back row, because the community is worth it down here,” continued Mccloskey. “Now tell me why you’re giving it up? Because—,” asked Manchin.

“Because we had put this into effect prior to Hurricane Sandy to move the first two rows to the back. I don’t want my house falling in the ocean, because when I go diving down there, I see remnants of refrigerators and stuff in the ocean.” 

“Really?”“And that bothers me,” said McCloskey. 

Nancy Thoresen jumps in. She owns this ocean front land, where people have built nearly 400 cottages. 

“And the people in the front two rows did not want to move,” said Thoresen. “There was a lot of grumbling at first. After they saw what happened with Sandy came by, three of the houses ended up disappearing into the ocean.” 

Thoresen remembers the storm well. 

“The houses just washed away, disappeared, and two more where halfway down the bank here and they were in ruins and all the rest that were still on the row there were pretty badly damaged,” recalled Thoresen. “Some of them have been saved and have been moved back. Others were demolished and are being rebuilt.” 

Thoresen is the granddaughter of the late Roy Carpenter, who bought this land in 1918. The cottages were built after the Hurricane of 1938.  

During this day-long tour of Rhode Island, Manchin also talks to scientists, who bolster the stories shared by fishermen and coastal property owners.  During a visit to the University of Rhode Island, four scientists gave Manchin an overview of Rhode Island vulnerability to climate change impacts. 

One of them was Grover Fugate, the executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, who told the West Virginia senator that Rhode Island is very concerned about rapidly rising seas. Fugate said in the past decade, the rates of sea level rise have almost doubled from previous decades. 

“And the concern that we have is that CO2 is obviously the major forcing factor in this,” said Fugate. 

Fugate points to a graph in his presentation that shows a strong relationship between the global rise of carbon emissions and sea level rise over the last 400,000 years. He said sea levels have been stable for the past 2,000, but now their rapid rise is wearing away the coastlines, such as at Roy Carpenter’s Beach. Fugate says the neighboring South Kingstown Town Beach also lost a lot of beach, especially after Superstorm Sandy. 

“That erosion according to our calculated erosion rate should have taken 100 years and it took less than 20,” said Fugate. “So something is up.” 

The owner of the Ocean Mist Beach Bar, just a few miles away from Roy’s Carpenter Beach, puts this erosion into perspective.

Kevin Finnegan and the two senators stand on the back deck overlooking the ocean. Finnegan remembers how he’d be able to hand over beers to his customers from his deck, but he can’t do that anymore because there’s a steep vertical drop. At high tide, the sea comes up right under the building.


Kevin Finnegan owns the Ocean Mist beach bar in Matunuck. He used to be able to hand people beer from his back deck, where he's standing in this photograph, but now there's a steep drop due to the eroding beach line.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“Somebody used to be able to stand on the stand out there and hand somebody, from where I am, a beer,” said Whitehouse.

“Not from here?” asked Manchin.
“Correct [from here],” said Finnegan. “When I bought this place, my head would be here, and I’d hand out you a beer. I bought it in 1988 so it stayed like that for say, 10 to 12 years and then after--
“So you’re saying to me?
“I could stand over here,” continued Finnegan.
“You could stand there?”
“There was a volleyball net, there were two volleyball nets there,” said Finnegan.
“What?” asked Manchin.
“The top of the volleyball net was--
“Where did it go? Where did it all—,“
“Out to sea,” said Whitehouse.
“Out to sea, yeah,” said Finnegan. 
“All from storms?
“Storms, small storms, just day to day stuff. Not big stuff. Just day to day stuff,” said Finnegan. 

So what is Manchin’s takeaway? 

“I can go back now, I think, and say listen, I’ve been on the frontlines,” said Manchin. “Now I’ve watched the environment--the effects that we have-- and to say that it’s not real is not reasonable.” 

Manchin heard from scientists who told him that carbon emissions are behind rapidly rising sea and the urgent need to curb those emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency is trying to reduce carbon pollution from one of the nation’s largest sources, power plants, which account for roughly one third of all of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Sen. Manchin represents coal country. He’s a vocal opponent of the EPA’s plan, saying that the proposal to cut emissions from power plants doesn’t balance the country’s need to protect the environment with its energy needs. And this visit hasn’t shifted his position. 

“I like to think that we’re all environmentalists, but I’m coming from a realist point that you’re going to use it [coal] and I want to be energy secured and we’re going to use the coal that we have and it’s part of our economy,” said Manchin. “But still yet, until there is a new fuel of the future that’s as dependable, reliable, and affordable and it’s a base load, then you’re going to use what we’re able to produce for you and we want to be able to continue to do it. So work with me, and that’s where I think I can say that we are trying to find that balance.” 

Even though Manchin didn’t change his mind about efforts to reduce carbon pollution from power plants, Whitehouse still considers Manchin’s visit a success. 

“I didn’t invite Sen. Manchin here thinking he was suddenly going to have an epiphany and turn into a greenie and come to the next climate march with me,” said Whitehouse. 

Whitehouse thinks Manchin is a smart and reasonable voice from a coal state and is someone who can connect with some of the Senate’s more conservative members, “some of whom believe that the whole climate change problem is a conspiracy designed as a foil to allow people to expand the role of government and take away freedom,” said Whitehouse.

Manchin said under his breath, “Fair.”


Whitehouse believes hearing a message of urgency will carry more weight coming from Manchin.  In many ways, the West Virginia senator represents how complicated and challenging it is to address climate change and advance action.

But he also represents hope, with his willingness to learn, listen, and collaborate. And In Rhode Island, collaboration to take action on climate change is already taking off among the state, municipalities, businesses, and universities.


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