Meeting Gov. Cooper’s climate change mandate will take more than just turning out the lights. It will require a new way of thinking.

By: - December 20, 2018 5:00 am

About five years ago, before the public widely knew that the world’s greenhouse gas emissions were tipping the climate over the point of no return, Alex Johnson, Durham’s urban forester, was weighing what trees to plant to replace the mass die-off of the city’s willow oaks. Those oaks, planted around the same time more than 80 years ago, were reaching the end of their natural lifespan at the same time. But Johnson knew that climate change would alter what species could survive protracted droughts, flash flooding and hotter summers.

Although at the time Durham lay within Hardiness Zone 7b, Johnson said, it might be more prudent to replant for Hardiness Zone 8 — a warmer climate.

Decisions about what trees to plant might seem insignificant compared to decisions about whether to uproot and move an entire flood-prone town, like Princeville, in Edgecombe County. But both dilemmas point to the myriad ways, small and large, that climate change touches our lives.

North Carolina is experiencing these changes in some form nearly every day. Earlier this month, parts of North Carolina endured a mammoth snowstorm and even received a year’s worth of snow in a single day. Such changes helped prompt Gov. Roy Cooper, in late October, to issue Executive Order 80, requiring steep reductions in statewide greenhouse gas emissions. Yesterday morning, the NC Climate Change Interagency Council unveiled an 18-month plan to comply with the executive order.

“We have to join with gusto the overall fight against climate change,” Cooper said at the meeting. ” … You’ve got an administration that believes in science, believes in facts.”

The scientific facts: Climate change, the recent National Climate Assessment Report detailed, is directly causing rising seas, stronger storms, catastrophic flooding, deeper droughts and more extreme temperatures. These atmospheric shifts, though, will result not only in sweeping societal change, but will play out in smaller, individualized ways that aren’t immediately visible. Climate change will determine what farmers plant — and if they can plant.

For example, in the North Carolina mountains, apple growers, who plant their trees a decade or more in advance, have to consider how the climate will treat their orchards not just today, but in 20 years, under much different conditions. The coastal plain, whose sandy soil and high water table have always been inhospitable to industrialized livestock operations, will become more saturated, more prone to washing waste into the rivers and streams that supply the public with drinking water.

[easy-tweet tweet=”You’ve got an administration that believes in science”]

Climate change will determine where people rebuild, the counties that will lose (and gain) population, which in turn decides the amount of federal and state funding those areas will receive, based on census numbers and school attendance. The poor areas will become poorer, with fewer services. Without services, such as health care, cooling stations, and even industry, these counties and neighborhoods will be less resilient and more vulnerable to nature’s very unnatural extremes.

From mid-September to mid-October, Hurricane Florence and Tropical Storm Michael clobbered most of the state. Florence alone killed 42 people and caused $17 billion in damage. Shortly after the second storm, Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order No. 80. It requires the state to meet several benchmarks by 2025. For example, North Carolina must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels — not just within state government, but in the state. It also mandates boosting the number of zero-emission electric vehicles registered in the state from 9,000 to 80,000 within the same time frame. It requires every department, and every division with those departments, to significantly reduce their carbon footprint, document those decreases, and submit plans and progress to public comment.

I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues.” Members of the Ragin’ Grannies read from Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” which they gave to Gov. Cooper. (Screenshot from NC DEQ livestream)

The NC Climate Change Interagency Council grew out of Cooper’s order. Led by Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) Secretary Michael Regan, the council includes a representative from every cabinet-level department and establishes an aggressive timetable to accomplish the goals. “This state will be on the right side of history,” Regan said.

“This has never been done on this level,” said Sushma Masemore, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environmental Quality. “We have six months to do this work. Most states take two to three years.”

As the various departments discussed how they consume energy, it became apparent that the executive order is ambitious. State-owned buildings consume one percent of all energy in North Carolina. The Department of Information Technology, for example, constantly runs servers which require electricity and that need to be cooled — also by electricity.

Even tax filings consume energy and ultimately emit greenhouse gases.

“When you think of the Department of Revenue, you think of paper,” said Ron Penny, Secretary of the Department of Revenue. “We’re thinking about our relationship with paper and how to reduce that.”

Of the 22 million tax filings, 85 percent enter the system digitally. But that leaves 15 percent — 3.3 million — that are sent in on dead trees. “That’s a lot of paper,” Penny said. “We want to make it easier for all taxpayers in all brackets to file digitally.”

The Department of Natural and Cultural Resources lost nearly $2 million in revenue because of Hurricane Florence, said Secretary Susi Hamilton. Buildings, roads leading to buildings, trails, tourist destinations were all flooded. In. 2016, while Hurricane Matthew was drowning eastern North Carolina, forest fires, made possible by an historic drought, burned 7,000 acres near Chimney Rock State Park and another 6,400 South Mountain.

Hamilton, a former legislator, urged lawmakers to increase funding for the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to buy out flood plains and preserve the areas.

The Department of Transportation plans to introduce electric cars into its fleet, and to create “alternative fuel corridors” for motorists who need to charge at EV stations across the state. Currently, said Transportation Secretary Jim Trodgen, electric vehicles’ distance limitations on a single charge hamper consumer buy-in. “We have to reduce ‘range anxiety’,” Trodgen said.

[easy-tweet tweet=”We have to reduce range anxiety”]

Jeremy Tarr, policy advisor on energy, the environment, transportation, and natural resources for Gov. Cooper, said “We’re going to buy zero-emission vehicles and use them, not just sit them in the parking lot.” Because of the distance limitations, “not all trips are feasible,” Tarr said, but in those cases the state would use “low-emissions alternatives.”

Shortly before Hurricane Florence hit eastern North Carolina, the Department of Public Safety had to evacuate 3,000 inmates — almost 10 percent of the entire prison population — from facilities in the path of the storm. The cost of that transport, plus the enormous square footage of the prisons — 19 million square feet in total — the size of about 100 Walmart Supercenters, as well as emergency management services expenses, adds to the $22 million DPS spends on electricity alone.

Police cars and emergency vehicles need more horsepower than electric cars can deliver, so most of the DPS fleet will stick with conventional cars. But because of the immensity and expanse of the department,  “even small changes make a huge difference,” said Doug Holbrook, chief financial officer for DPS.

The fossil fuel and carbon industry — coal, natural gas and wood pellets — often uses the promise of jobs to garner support, including tax breaks and relaxed regulations for their projects, such as pipelines and wood pellet plants. (An Enviva representative pitched wood pellets as a clean energy solution; science shows that the carbon generated by the burning of the pellets for fuel is in no way clean.) But many people in eastern North Carolina, which is often the dumping ground for polluting industries, have long clamored for green jobs. Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland said his department would “assess the state’s workforce” and work with schools, community colleges and universities to meet the labor demands of that sector. “Today we have a labor shortage in most of the state,” Copeland said.

Green energy, Cooper said, presents new opportunities for the state. “This is not a sacrifice,” he said, “but a strong move to get North Carolina ready for the new jobs of the future.”

Gov. Roy Cooper: “You have an administration that believes in science.” (Screenshot from NC DEQ livestream)

Many opponents of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline attended to on one hand extend a carrot to the governor for his executive order but to wave a stick for his support of the natural gas project — and his failure to meet with affected landowners along the 160-mile North Carolina route.

“In order to be a true climate leader, you must stop all fossil fuel projects,” said Karen Bearden, local coordinator for the national project spearheaded by famed environmentalist Bill McKibben. “The state treasury should divest its pension funds” from dirty energy, she said. “So much more needs to be done.”

“Think about it through a community lens,” added Therese Vick of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “The governor needs to talk with impacted landowners. He has not done so. He owes them that respect.”

The Climate Change Interagency Council will meet again in February.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.