Experts see a dire warning for North Carolina in new climate crisis numbers

By: - June 5, 2020 6:00 am
(Photo credit: North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan)

State officials release “resilience plan,” but political will remains in question

In addition to deaths worldwide from COVID-19 and record unemployment, the globe surpassed another portentous record last month: The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached the highest ever recorded — 417.1 parts per million, according to an announcement yesterday by NOAA and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Even the economic crash related to the pandemic didn’t slow the uptick in CO2, a greenhouse gas and main driver of climate change. Levels didn’t decrease in part because CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for a long time. There is also natural variability in CO2 levels based on plants and soils. So to make a dent in carbon dioxide levels, NOAA said, would require a sustained 20% to 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for six to 12 months.

“People may be surprised to hear that the response to the coronavirus outbreak hasn’t done more to influence CO2 levels,” said geochemist Ralph Keeling, who runs the Scripps Oceanography program at Mauna Loa, in the announcement. “But the buildup of CO2 is a bit like trash in a landfill. As we keep emitting, it keeps piling up. The crisis has slowed emissions, but not enough to show up perceptibly at Mauna Loa. What will matter much more is the trajectory we take coming out of this situation.”

Monthly carbon dioxide readings at Mauna Loa, the official measurement station, first breached 400 ppm in 2014, according to NOAA, “and are now at levels not experienced by the atmosphere in several million years. Among scientists, that 400 ppm threshold is considered a red line into the danger zone for climate change.

It’s against this disturbing backdrop that the NC Department of Environmental Quality this week released its Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, 372 pages of sobering data and details about the current and future impacts of climate change on North Carolina. It also directs state agencies, including transportation, health and human services, cultural and natural resources, agriculture and emergency management to develop short-term and long-range policies to address the climate crisis.

The report was required as part of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80, which in 2018 laid out numerous mandates and recommendations. Among them were reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 2005 levels and increasing the number of registered electric vehicles to 80,000 over the next five years.

Some of the Risk and Resiliency Plan recommendations are bureaucratic. Others though, would occur literally on the ground. These include “natural-based solutions,” such as using land to sequester carbon, the construction of living shorelines made of natural materials, increasing the number of trees in cities, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.

Erin Carey, director of coastal programs for the North Carolina Sierra Club

“Even though the news isn’t great it’s important to know what’s happening,” said Erin Carey, director of coastal programs for the North Carolina Sierra Club. She was involved in a working group that sent recommendations to DEQ for the report.

Climate justice is at the forefront of the report. This is key because communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are most vulnerable to the hazards of climate change. Because of historic and ongoing racism, especially involving housing,  communities of color have been relegated to living in low-lying areas, often near hazardous waste and industrialized livestock operations whose runoff can flood their neighborhoods with contamination during and after storms.

“The CAFO [concentrated animal feeding operations] section was disappointing,” Carey said. “I found it to be lacking. I was hoping to see more environmental justice issues and the phasing out of lagoon and spray field system.”

Local governments, particularly outside of the major cities, need help in upgrading their wastewater and water treatment plants, fortifying their buildings, and caring for their citizens. One-third of North Carolina’s 10 million residents live in rural areas. Nearly 15% live in poverty. These individuals often lack access to health care, which prevents them from receiving proper medical treatment for such ailments as asthma, cardiovascular disease and other respiratory illness — all exacerbated by pollution.

Black, Latinx and American Indian people may live in substandard homes. Already burdened by high energy costs, these households are further jeopardized by excessive heat — a near certainty in our changing climate. In fact, the most recent decade has been the warmest on record; 2019 was the hottest documented year in North Carolina.

Weatherization programs, microgrids, renewable energy — particularly community solar, which could serve renters as well as homeowners — could help alleviate these hazards.

Other recommendations range from improving waste management at industrialized livestock operations or buying those farms outright, with the owner’s permission, if they lie in a floodplain. In flood-prone or landslide-prone areas, buildings might need to be moved and, in some cases, their construction could be banned altogether. Several media outlets reported last month that a beach house on the Outer Banks fell into the Atlantic Ocean because of shifting sands. (A third Sea Level Rise Assessment is due Aug. 31, but a DEQ spokeswoman said that because of the pandemic, it could be delayed.)

“it makes no sense to keeping putting money into areas devastated by storms year after year.” (Photo credit: North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan)

“We need to be logical in our development decisions,” Carey said. “These are hard decisions, but it makes no sense to keeping putting money into areas devastated by storms year after year.”

Among the working group’s recommendations that made it into the report is one that recommends scoring state-funded projects, like roads, based on their hazard risk to vulnerable communities. Some federal public housing, such as one community in Fayetteville, is also located in flood plains.

But few of these ideas wrapped in 372 pages will come to fruition without political will and money. There has been a chasm between reports like this one and the actual rules, policies and laws that work counter to the recommendations. For example, the state’s Clean Energy Plan calls for steep greenhouse gas reductions, but DEQ has issued permits to natural gas pipelines and wood pellet plants that on balance, add to the state’s and the globe’s climate footprint.

As for money, there were 148 mentions of the word “funding” in the plan, most often in reference to the lack of it.

“I was surprised about how consistently the lack of funding and people came up,” Carey said. “There are a lot of great ideas, but they need to be properly funded. This is an example of what kind of destruction has been done to DEQ as the legislature has defunded it over the past decade.”

According to the Environmental Integrity Project, DEQ’s spending on pollution control programs decreased by a third from 2008-2018, equivalent to a reduction of $45 million. At least 435 positions have been cut.

The final pages of the report explained the funding conundrum delicately: “Large-scale change is required to truly reduce risk and build resiliency to climate change impacts will require North Carolina to redirect political commitments and investments.”

Carey, though, was more blunt.

“We need to get rid of the partisan divide and fund the programs,” she  said. “We have a very small window of time.”

Key N.C. climate crisis numbers…

…related to water and fishing:

99-100% — Probability that sea level will continue to rise and summer heat index values will increase

Climate change projections in NC.
Image credit: NC Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan

14 — Miles farther north commercial fishing boats are landing each year because fish, seeking cooler temperatures, are also moving north

38 — Number of hydroelectric plants in the state

7.5 billion —Gallons of water used per day by those facilities

22 — Number of species of aquatic animals that are federally endangered or threatened

2.9 million — Acres of coastal waters in NC

38,000 — Miles of rivers

285 — Number of recreational swim beaches

…related to fire and land:

11.5 million — Tons of CO2 equivalent emitted by agriculture

37 million — Tons of carbon captured by forests and land use

70 — Percentage of state’s peatlands that have been ditched and drained, which contributes to carbon emissions, increased wildfire risk and land sinking. In turn, sinking lands become more prone to flooding and sea level rise.

8.4 million — Acres of operating farm land

18 million — Acres of operating timber land

76% — Percentage of total land in NC devoted to farming and forestry

15 million — Number of tree seedlings representing over 40 species managed by the NC Forest Service Nursery Program

23 million — Acres under state jurisdiction that are prone to wildfire

4,000 — Average number of wildfires in NC, annually

26,000 — Average acres burned, annually

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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.