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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Gimmieabreak

Just curious…I’d like to get a roll call type response. Of the folks who are on the man-made climate change side, tell me, what are you doing (or not doing) to help fight the problem? Electric cars? Don’t own car only ride bike? Don’t take airplane trip vacations? Boycott all animal foods due to flatulence? Again, just curious, I don’t see a whole lot of people on the Outer Banks doing the things contrary to the things they say are causing the problem. Thanks in advance for your input.

dave

Ricardo…..you do know that 50% of the polar ice cap has melted since 1980…don’t you? Gee, I wonder why the glaciers are disappearing; or have already disappeared. Seriously, try and think more than three bumper sticker slogans out. Thx.

Freenusa

Dave I actually read the geology chapter 16 as u suggested. There was a lot of information about the history of earth’s climate change. None of which pointed to carbon emmisions as the cause. No doubt there is climate change history does prove it but history disproves the cause is carbon emmisions. Evidently since earth’s creation there has been cooling and warming cycles. At what stage of his life did you become dependent on a Google tool? It appears you abandoned God given common sense and historical evidence. I feel sorry for you as I believe you have been brainwashed.… Read more »

Ricardo

I have to laugh every time I read this global warming hysteria. Most folks who push this far left agenda don’t realize that it is nothing more than a potential government tax scam. Stalin had a name for them. The quickest way to shut down the promoters of the global warming scam is with 5th grade science class questions. What happens when your water line freezes? What happens if all the 4 million square miles of Arctic ice melts? When the ice that is displacing all that water melts, the sea level would go DOWN – not up. They point… Read more »

dave

Freenuse. If you actually don’t know what a mass extinction is; well, that’s just weapons grade stupid.

Freenuse

Gimmi. Ask Dave about mass extension. He seems to think he is the expert.

Gimmieabreak

Freenusa…what is a mass extention?

dave

@Free. Just curious, but did you smoke something before you typed that response to me? Did it make sense when you typed it? The spelling, disconnects, etc are there. Its not common sense; its common science. It does compute. Maybe you should get a new computer and use the Google tool to look some of this stuff up. Here is a link to give some overview of glaciation:
https://opentextbc.ca/geology/chapter/16-1-glacial-periods-in-earths-history/

Freenusa

In response to “You people”. Oriental, I believe is a northeast wind for flooding.Its in the other side of the sound.

Freenusa

I decided not to respond tooo quickly. Don’t won’t to ruffle toooo many feathers. Dave you have alot of info. Not sure how the first part pertains to the second part. According to you there have been four MASS EXTEXTIONS and we as humans are going to be responsible for the FIFTH Mass Extention. That does not compute. Use common sense. U stated the glacier in progress started melting 10000 years ago. How can you believe we as humans emitting carbon and methane emmisions are responsible? Obviously there is climate change…..how can u say humans and cows are the cause??????

You People

Guess what people, regardless of the temperature, if the wind howls out of the west northwest for more than 24 hours Manteo, Rodanthe and Oriental will flood.

dave

@ CorollaCat. Your prev post was somewhat confusing to me. My apologies. Glad you agree 1+1=2! 🙂
Hey Browny. Did you ever take any science classes; like geography, or some sort of geology? Do you have any published sources that you could refer us to? If you do, please list them.
Thx

Browny Douglas

There is no effective arguement to the contrary of what Freenusa stated. Is there?

Browny Douglas

Freenusa

So maybe that is the “Inconvient Truth”?

CorollaCat

Hey Dave. I’m on your side.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot; everybody calm down.

dave

Freenusa. Again, go to your Google tool and look up glacial epochs/episodes/periods. You will learn that there have been many Ice Ages. We are currently still in the “last” ice age known as the Wisconsin episode; just as there has been a Nebraskan, Kansan, Illinois, etc. The current glacial stage that we are currently in is just at the recession stage. The current glacier began to recede approximately 10,000 years ago. The reason it was named the Wisconsin is because that’s where a significant amount of glacial artifacts are found. This is not only a national emergency, but a world… Read more »

Spoony Rae

David, Dave, Dave, bless your heart! So quick to insult, but you did not dispute anything I said, just juvenile attack. Please tell me one thing I said that is not a provable fact. I don’t argue with the ignorant, after a short period both of us will look like fools instead of just you………

Freenusa

In school I learned that in prehistoric times there was an “ice age”. Obviously things thawed and I am sure it was not because of man made carbon emissions. Climate change…..history proves it, man made……history does not prove it.

dave

@ CorollaCat. Yes, in fact we do know what’s going on. This isn’t hard people….well, at least for most of us.

dave

Really. Quick! You should be down at the border helping to stop the caravans of women and children with nothing more than the shirts on their backs that may throw a stone or a stick at a heavily armed US military soldier or a tank! Really= FAKE NEWS! Seriously, I truly think you lack the intellectual resources and educational background to actually engage in a serious discussion of something that is actually indisputable such as climate change. When you were in kindergarten, did you tell your teacher that 1+1 didn’t equal 2? Bryan…..this pertains to you as well . Sad.… Read more »