As floods worsen, tide is shifting in climate-change debate

By on February 12, 2019

Manteo during Tropical Storm Michael in October. (Cory Hemilright)

Kirk Ross
Coastal Review Online

Inside and outside the walls of the state legislature, there’s been a noticeable shift in the conversation about climate change and its impact on North Carolina.

It’s driven in part by a renewed political debate, but according to recent studies and surveys, it’s mainly the result of personal experience.

A new study by the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication shows a noticeable jump nationwide in the number of people in the U.S. who believe they have experienced global warming’s effects.

The study, Climate Change in the American Mind, which was released in December, found that 46 percent of those surveyed said they had personally experienced the effects of global warming, two-thirds said global warming is affecting weather in the United States and more than half said warming has made natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes worse.

That change is evident in North Carolina, where record rainfalls statewide and the devastating effects of natural disasters, especially the repeated inundation of eastern North Carolina from hurricanes, has helped change the dialogue from one of questioning whether climate change is happening to what can be done about it.

The close succession of Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 and Hurricane Florence in September 2018 appears to have accelerated the change in public perception here.

An Elon University Poll conducted in October 2018, a month after Hurricane Florence made landfall here, found that for the first time a majority of North Carolinians, 53 percent, think it is very likely that the state’s coastal communities will be negatively affected by climate change during the next 50 years, an increase of 8 percent compared to a similar poll a year and a half earlier.

In the North Carolina General Assembly, the idea that public policy must take into consideration a changing climate has received greater attention as the legislature reviews recovery plans in the wake of Hurricane Florence.

Late last year, in the initial response to the disaster, legislators focused on immediate recovery. While there was some discussion that a changing climate might require policy changes, working through those choices was left for future sessions.

Now, with a series of policy and budget choices ahead, legislative committees will begin sifting through the options.

They’ll be pushed by Gov. Roy Cooper, who has stepped up pressure on legislators to commit to programs aimed at addressing climate change, including support for cleaner energy production and an array of resiliency initiatives that would move infrastructure, agriculture operations and people out of flood-prone areas.

Cooper, who testified Wednesday morning on climate change before the U.S. House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee, wields far more negotiating power as a result of the 2018 election, which ended the long-held Republican supermajorities in each chamber.

Cooper on Oct. 29, 2018, ordered greenhouse gas reductions in operations of all state agencies and required them to build consideration of climate effects into planning and regulatory functions. But to move the needle beyond the executive branch, the governor will need the backing of the legislature, where many members remain unconvinced of the science, the need for sweeping policy changes or both.

Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, a veteran legislator who is co-chair of the House Environment Committee and the appropriations subcommittee that drafts the environmental and natural resources budget, said she remains skeptical about the cause of climate change and taking policies too far in response.

“I’m convinced that the climate changes. I’m not convinced that man has that big a part in it,” she said in a recent interview with Coastal Review Online. “I’m sure there is a small amount, but when you start looking at changing everything in America, when the Chinese haven’t changed anything, and other countries haven’t changed anything …”

McElraft said she does support preventive measures, which have helped in coastal areas, but she isn’t convinced the state needs to start elevating roads. She said the emphasis should instead be on clearing debris from waterways. The state’s beach areas fared far better in terms of rising water than inland communities, she said.

“I think we in North Carolina already have prepared and are pretty resilient. I think our issues are 30 inches of rain and river flooding and we need to do something about cleaning out the creeks and rivers. That should be our focus,” McElraft said.

For Rep. Ray Russell, a Democrat who won in a Republican-leaning district in North Carolina’s northwest mountains, the state will have to do far more.

Russell, a computer science professor at Appalachian State University and a web entrepreneur who founded a respected weather site, said climate change and effects of global warming on North Carolina is one area where most residents are ahead of the legislature.

“They’re understanding climate change now, unlike five to 10 years ago. They feel it,” Russell said. Climate change deniers continue the same “mumbo-jumbo,” he said, “but no legitimate scientist has any question about (global) warming.”

Russell said that for years he’s been advising businesses to prepare for changes, and it’s inevitable that the state will also have to start to shift.

“It’s only a matter of time before it works its way to this body,” he said in a recent interview at the Legislative Building. “There are going to be fundamental changes to how we do business here, but a little bit at a time.”

The model for transportation funding, “will be turned on its head,” he said. “In 30 years, we’re not going to be able to rely on a gas tax to get that done.”

Right now, some of the biggest recurring economic effects are seen in agriculture, Russell said. In the state’s mountain regions, climate change has already shortened the growing season, and wet weather and early- to late-season temperature swings have taken a toll on berry and apple farmers.

Russell said some farmers are facing the loss of crop insurance coverage because the climate is no longer viable for orchards.

“Insurance companies are paying attention and are starting to reduce liability,” he said.

Concerns about apple orchards are also on the mind of Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican who is both a key House budget co-chair and an environmentalist with no qualms about the scientific consensus on climate change.

McGrady, whose district in Henderson County is in the heart of the state’s apple-growing region, said that to move forward, those pushing for policy changes will have to take a pragmatic approach. There is still a lot of wariness around the term “climate change,” McGrady said, but there is a consensus around the need for greater resiliency.

“I do think most Republicans are skeptical about climate change and you’re not going to likely see changes in how we address disaster relief by making climate change arguments,” McGrady said. “That said, I think there is more of a focus on resiliency. We have had two major storms within a short period of time, and we’re being asked to build again or fix again a range of the same things we just built or fixed.”

There’s more of a recognition now that there are places where the state should be rebuilding, he said.

The legislature has roughly $100 million budgeted for the next round of disaster relief. That’s where McGrady and others expect the disaster avoidance initiatives to happen.

Since the storm, the legislature has been working with the governor’s office to prioritize spending, working through a menu of options. The early priorities were getting schools open and roads back in service, but now, he said, there’s an understanding that the next part of the recovery plan is building greater resiliency.

“The early priority was on fixing a range of things not on preventing future things,” he said. “Now there is a recognition that since we’ve had two of these massive events that we have to spend money on prevention and avoidance.”

McGrady said he is not discouraged that many of his colleagues do not share his views on climate change. He said late last year the legislature approved a plan advocated by Cooper for a new section of the Division of Emergency Management charged with managing resiliency and recovery efforts. Setting up the new group was an acknowledgement that the state couldn’t manage either on a storm-by-storm basis and needs longer-term programs and strategies.

McGrady said he’s also encouraged because, even though many of his colleagues are still doubtful about climate change, they are now far more willing to discuss doing something about it.

While working on legislation for recovery programs during Hurricane Matthew, McGrady said that raising resilience, prevention and avoidance issues “were more or less laughed at.” The thinking then was that it was a one-time event and the state just needed to fund the recovery.

“There’s none of that thinking now,” McGrady said.


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Comments

  • Michael

    Climate change ( believers ) never want to remember history. It’s always about the track of a storm, and it’s duration and its timing that determines the outcome. As well as the strength of course, but they always use the most recent terrible storm and never want to recognize the past. Decades and centuries ago. Florence weakened tremendously before landfall. The steering currents kept the system over the se part of the state . Mathew was the same thing. Let’s keep hush on the 1800s storms. The 1930s. The 1950s. Stronger storms than we have had now. It’s about real estate and the mind of storm. It’s sad that if it’s a blizzard its global warming. A warm February, it’s GW. The outer banks getting a cat 1 hurricane ( which is likely) it’s GW. A seagull shows up at Burger King parking lot? Must be that global warming

    Tuesday, Feb 12 @ 2:19 pm
  • Steve

    Horsefeathers!

    Tuesday, Feb 12 @ 3:31 pm
  • Really?

    OBV still pushing that liberal narrative.

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 8:21 am
  • dave

    Really still pushing the flat earth narrative.

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 8:35 am
  • glenwood montgomery

    mostly a way researchers have of getting funding to study problems be it real or not. Imagine that if indeed our climate is slowly warming there is very little that we can do to change the trend.

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 8:49 am
  • CorollaCat

    Aaaaaand like I always say…everybody calm down.

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 9:01 am
  • Browny Douglas

    Thank God there is still people like Rep Pat McElraft that exercise common sense reasoning.
    Browny Douglas

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 9:12 am
  • dave

    Michael, its seems you don’t know the difference between weather and climate. Go to your toolbox and pull out your Google tool and look it up. Get educated. Thanks.

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 10:59 am
  • Mike

    If you cannot compare digital imagery of polar icecap change during the last two decades and not admit that something drastic is happening due to the increase of greenhouse gases, then l have nothing else to tell you. Like an ostrich, just stick your head right back in the sand and kick the can down the curb for your kids and grandkids.

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 11:11 am
  • WombatNC

    Ahhh, ignorance is bliss… until reality kicks you in the butt! To the deniers, how can 97% (3% work for fossil fuel companies) of climatologists and those that study the atmosphere be in agreement; that global climate change is happening and that human made greenhouse gasses have a lot to do with it. I know that science and all of those pesky facts are difficult for many of y’all to grasp, but come on, are you really that naive. The US military understands the situation and has been preparing our bases around the world for almost 20 years for the effects of climate change and sea level rise. Look at the average global temperatures over the past 10-15years and you’ll see a very disturbing pattern. And yes, as Mike said, satellite photo’s of the polar ice caps and Antarctica are not photo-shopped or conspired by liberal scientists – it’s reality and as Al Gore said 20 years ago, it’s and Inconvinient Truth! Locally, scientists are monitoring the effects of sea level rise around the region, from Hatteras to Alligator River to the Back Bay. Their studies vary from place to place but all have similar and disturbing patterns and we should be very concerned with it NOW!

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 5:14 pm
  • dave

    The problem with the flat earthers is that they cannot accept basic facts. One cannot reason with someone who won’t accept basic facts. 1+1=2; but some will argue that that is a false statement. If someone is this dim, there is no point in wasting your time trying to have a rational discussion with them; because you can’t.

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 5:43 pm
  • Lance Manly

    Mike,

    Eventually his head in the sand will be under water.

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 6:42 pm
  • Also Mike

    So Mike, you are right, there is much significant evidence of warming climate, like the polar ice caps. But the article specifically mentions recent storms that have occurred with less intensity than storms decades ago. So these recent storms prove nothing. But my question to you and all other “stick your head in the sand, kick the can down the road” criticizers of people who point out inconsistencies in your argument is…what are you doing specifically to combat climate change besides point out how wrong everyone else is? I suppose you never air travel, have an electric car(which runs on coal fired electricity), are a vegan and buy carbon offsets?

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 7:13 pm
  • Steve

    Planet Earth is at least 4,000,000,000 (four billion) years old. Man’s been around in one form or another for about 6,000,000 (six million) years. No honest/unbiased scientific effort could or would even attempt to produce analytic conclusions regarding geological or atmospheric changes based on a period of 20 (that’s right, twenty) years.
    Ludicrous!

    Wednesday, Feb 13 @ 11:37 pm
  • Spoony Rae

    Since God’s creation the climate has warmed and cooled in cycles; at least that’s how it used to be taught until money was to be made from it. The intensity and track of storms hasn’t changed, what’s changed is the number of people living in the danger zones and our education system being used to push anti-capitalist agendas.

    Thursday, Feb 14 @ 7:13 am
  • CHARLIE AYCOCK

    The real issue is whether climate change, assuming it is occurring and dangerous, is due to man’s intervention. There are two scientific schools of thought. The “snowflake” (excuse the pun) who says he invented the internet has a made a fortune disregarding one for the other. When I read something that sounds like it may have come from his lips, I find it hard to pay attention.

    Thursday, Feb 14 @ 7:19 am
  • Really?

    Dum dave try splaining the Great Unconformity. Earth has iced over several times before humans were ever here. Climate always changes, its the only thing that doesn’t change! Wombat get in your safe space quick!

    Thursday, Feb 14 @ 8:14 am
  • CorollaCat

    It’s funny how you all act like you know what’s going on. Ya don’t. 1+1=2
    Also…. everybody calm down.

    Thursday, Feb 14 @ 8:29 am
  • dave

    @ Spoony Rae: You really aren’t the sharpest spoon in the drawer, are you? I’m guessing you didn’t do very well in the science classes, did you? Or, did you just avoid all the science classes altogether? Get out your Google tool; and if you don’t have one, go to your neighbors and borrow theirs. Google: Hockey Stick Phenomenon as it applies to climate change. Educate yourself. I know, it may be painful and difficult to accept, but learning new facts is actually pretty cool! As you assimilate more knowledge, you can expand upon it and use it as it pertains to other things. You will be smarter!

    @ Charlie: If you base your entire view of climate change based upon one persons gaffe, well, I just can’t help you. There are not two schools of thought. This is accepted as scientific FACT. 98% of ALL the leading climatologists agree that this is man made. Period. End of discussion. It appears you are just about the money and nothing else. My question to you is, how are you going to take it ($$$) with you?

    Thursday, Feb 14 @ 8:43 am
  • Bryan

    Thirty years ago it was the hole in the Ozone layer, then, Global Warming, now, Climate Change….
    Keep spewing the narrative. Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth- the law of propaganda!

    Thursday, Feb 14 @ 10:04 am