North Carolina has a complicated relationship with climate change. The state was one of the first to consider its impacts and possible responses, but today—as reports like the National Climate Assessment issue ever more dire warnings—few policies are in place to adapt. In the first of a three part series, WFAE explores the shift.
In November 2011, North Carolina’s environmental agency handed lawmakers a report; it analyzed how 77 divisions across state government should incorporate climate change into their planning—how water, agriculture, and health offices should account for impacts on water resources, disease spread, or pest control. It was an outcrop of years of research, but lawmakers never convened to discuss it.
“This was really high on the North Carolina agenda, and it went from that, to nothing,” says Victor Flatt, who advised on the report, as director of UNC’s Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources. “I think what we’ve seen in North Carolina is kind of the most shocking change we’ve seen in any state.”
- Part 2: Turning away from sea level rise, local communities pick up the slack on drinking water.
- Part 3: The agriculture industry prepares for climate change, without believing in it.
A 2008 report on cutting emissions lies unused. The environment department has removed the sections of its website about climate change. State lawmakers have banned agencies from considering, until 2016, perhaps the biggest impact, accelerating sea level rise. A study of how the rising tide could damage coastal property was never publicly released. Funded by a $5 million FEMA grant, that study was billed as the most in-depth in the nation, and expected to be a model for other coastal states, says Flatt.
“It’s an amazing tool,” he says. “It was designed for state and local government at the coast particularly to plan better, so they could see exactly what risks were to each parcel of property.”
The reason for the state’s change of heart appears pretty obvious, and voter approved. As Republicans won control of the General Assembly and then the governor’s office, work on climate change faded.
For instance, in 2010, the legislature—controlled by Democrats—requested the climate change recommendations from state agencies. In 2011, the Republican-led legislature declined to discuss their report.
Republican political strategist Todd Rehm says avoidance is the correct move from a political perspective.
“It is by and large an issue that you don’t want to touch,” says Rehm. “It’s not quite the third rail (too electric to touch), but it’s getting close to there.”
Rehm says since a large chunk of the Republican base does not believe climate change is man-made, it is automatically divisive and worth avoiding. State officials have adopted that strategy.
The Governor’s Office, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Department of Health and Human Services declined interviews about the recently published National Climate Assessment, a government-commissioned round-up of climate change science.
A spokesman for the governor’s office responded “we have been focused on teacher raises and the budget.”
The Department of Agriculture agreed to an interview—on the condition WFAE did not ask the commissioner his view on climate change.
But while senior Republican lawmakers have tried to avoid climate change discussions, the occasional on-record answer suggests the lack of action extends beyond political considerations. They do not necessarily believe carbon emissions cause climate change.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, a candidate for US Senate, joined his primary opponents in answering “no” to the question, “Is climate change a fact?” during a primary debate last month at Davidson College.
In the state Senate, President Pro Tem Phil Berger has signed a pledge to oppose any climate change-related spending.
“I’m not sure there’s a minority or majority view,” environment secretary John Skvarla said on WUNC’s the State of Things.
“The reality is there’s no such thing as consensus science,” he said.
Governor Pat McCrory answered most recently on CBS’ Face the Nation.
“The debate is really how much of it is man-made, and how much will it cost to have any impact on climate change,” McCrory said. “My main argument is, let’s clean up the environment.”
Rehm, the political strategist, says the second part of McCrory’s answer is the best way for Republicans to engage on the issue.
“The best message usually stays away from ideological discussion such as climate change, and focuses on the here and now—the stream that passes by your children’s school,” Rehm says.
The state has used this strategy to continue a few programs. The forestry service hands out flyers to help landowners prepare for more extreme weather, focusing on immediate benefits. Health and Human Services still runs a federally-funded program studying health impacts, but a spokeswoman avoids the phrase climate change.
But when it comes to North Carolina’s largest projected threats, to the coast, to water, and to agriculture, the state is not engaged in direct work.