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By Greg Barnes
It’s not like North Carolinians don’t have enough to worry about.
A pandemic has us in its grip, our economy is in tatters and protesters are crying out for racial justice.
Now comes more bleak news in the form of a 372-page report titled “North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan.”
Released in early June after 11 months in the making, the report comes with dire scientific warnings about the effects man-made climate change will likely have on the state by the end of the century unless rapid and sustainable measures are taken to stop greenhouse gas emissions.
The report says many of those effects have already begun.
According to it, sea levels will continue to rise and it is likely that summers will get even hotter, rainfall totals will increase, hurricane strengths will intensify, and severe droughts, inland flooding, wildfires and landslides will become more common.
“Our scientific understanding of the climate system strongly supports the conclusion that large changes in North Carolina’s climate, much larger than at any time in the state’s history, are very likely by the end of this century,” the report says.
The report points out that annual average temperatures in North Carolina have been consistently above normal since the 1990s and that the state saw its warmest 10-year span between 2009 and 2018. Data indicate that 2019 was the state’s warmest on record.
The report says climate change will affect the state’s agriculture and its economy. It will affect residents’ health and the environment, tourism and transportation, public safety and water resources, housing and buildings.
And it will have a disproportionate effect on the poor.
But the report isn’t all gloom and doom. Its primary purpose is to outline the growing risks the state is likely to face because of its vulnerability to climate change and to offer recommendations and solutions to ward them off.
“The 2020 Resilience Plan moves North Carolina to become more resilient to the impacts of climate change, even as we work to limit the magnitude of that change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to clean energy,” the report’s summary concludes. “By setting clear goals, taking action, and evaluating progress on a regular basis, North Carolina can make certain that our resilient state thrives amid changing conditions and challenges.”
Shortly after Hurricane Florence in 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 80 into law. The order seeks to reduce greenhouse gases in North Carolina by 40 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. The order also established the North Carolina Office of Resiliency and Recovery to oversee the work in the years to come.
Through the executive order and earlier reports — including the 2012 “Climate Ready North Carolina: Building a Resilient Future” and the N.C. Climate Science Report released in May — emerged the 2020 Resilience Plan, a collaboration among state and local governmental agencies, universities and communities throughout North Carolina.
“Supporting this ambitious path will require adequate staff, funding, expertise, time and support,” according to the report. “Each agency will then be able to develop resilience priorities and actions that are implemented equitably and inclusively across North Carolina.”
The effects of climate change
The report addresses the effects of climate change now and into the future. Among the likely changes:
- It is “very likely” that North Carolina temperatures will increase substantially in all seasons. That will likely result in more heat-related health issues, including respiratory problems, less water and more stress on crops that depend on nighttime cooling.
- The state is likely to see more intense droughts, further stressing agriculture and municipal water systems, and an increased risk of catastrophic wildfires.
- It is “virtually certain” that sea level along the North Carolina coast will continue to rise, resulting in nearly daily high tide flooding at some points along the coast, a loss of land, reduction of coastal habitats and fisheries, and shoreline erosion that will further jeopardize coastal homes.
- It is likely that warming of the oceans will lead to stronger hurricanes, causing greater harm to people, communities and the economy.
- Increases in extreme precipitation are likely to increase inland flooding, causing further economic and agricultural losses, more destruction of natural habitat and potentially destroying cultural resources.
The cause for all of these problems points to a single source.
“Extensive research has examined other potential causes of this warming, and the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations is the only plausible cause that is consistent with the observed data and the physics that governs the climate system,” according to the report.
High number of storms predicted
Researchers at N.C. State University predict a high number of named storms this hurricane season — between 18 and 22 — with the possibility that three to five of them will become major hurricanes. The long-term average for named storms was 11 between 1951 and 2019. Three named storms have already been recorded this season.
Should a hurricane hit the North Carolina coast this year, it could have disastrous consequences for a state grappling with economic losses caused by the coronavirus.
The N.C. Department of Transportation, which is tasked with fixing roads and bridges after a hurricane, faces a $300 million budget shortfall because the virus has kept people off the roads. The NCDOT, which relies heavily on gasoline taxes for its funding, has resorted to laying off many of its workers.
The NCDOT was financially strapped long before the virus, largely because of three major hurricanes that hit the state between 2016 and last year. According to WTVD-11 News, 100 projects remain unfinished from damage caused by Hurricane Florence in 2018 and 42 from Hurricane Dorian last year.
Socially vulnerable communities
The report takes an in-depth look at the effects climate change will continue to have on what it calls “social vulnerability” — largely people of color in low-income communities who often face such burdens as housing instability, discrimination and a lack of political representation.
“The vision for a climate-just North Carolina is one for a state that recognizes the inequities of both the past and of the present, in order to create a more equitable future for all,” the report says. “A state that prioritizes communities most vulnerable to the risks of climate change and strengthens North Carolina’s resilience and adaptive capacity, while providing opportunities for meaningful involvement to everyone at every stage.”
The report notes that socially vulnerable communities are often located in flood-prone areas for a variety of reasons, including cheaper land values and racial housing discrimination.
The report also notes that inland flooding disproportionately disrupts the lives of the people who live in these communities, especially the poor, elderly, disabled and chronically ill who may lack transportation, making evacuation difficult during a flood. People in these communities generally have less ability to pay for a hotel and less disposable income to replace spoiled food if the power goes out.
“Because of differences in the quality of housing and insurance coverage, wealthier communities often recover more quickly from inland flooding,” the report says.
As it does in other areas, the report offers multiple recommendations to make socially vulnerable communities more resilient.
“Imbalanced capacity and resources across local governments leaves smaller or poorer jurisdictions without resilience interventions,” the report says. “To equalize these opportunities, North Carolina must advance equitable resilience through state government policies and programs, and provide resources for communities to invest in their own futures.”
Marilynn Marsh-Robinson, a manager for the Raleigh-based Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement that the plan begins to address ways to protect vulnerable communities.
“What’s needed next is additional community engagement and holistic approaches developed hand-in-hand with the communities they are designed to protect,” Marsh-Robinson said. “It’s critical to support those most impacted throughout the process and equip them with what is needed to implement long-term solutions.”
The path forward
In all, the report examined 11 sectors that are increasingly vulnerable to climate change — agriculture and forestry; coastal resources and infrastructure; commerce and business; cultural resources; ecosystems; housing and buildings; health and human services; public safety; transportation; water and land resources; and energy.
The report begins with a message from Cooper.
“This strategic document reflects the commitment we share in creating a North Carolina where folks are healthier, better educated, and have more money in their pockets so they have opportunities to live more abundant and purposeful lives,” Cooper wrote.
It concludes by saying the path forward to greater climate resiliency relies on moving past assessment and into action.
“By setting clear goals, taking action, and evaluating progress on a regular basis, North Carolina can ensure that our resilient state thrives amid changing conditions and challenges,” the report says. “This shared vision of resilience will enable us to maintain and improve our quality of life, healthy growth, and durable systems and to conserve resources for present and future generations.”