In early June, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) submitted the North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan to Governor Cooper’s office. The result of 11 months of discussion with numerous stakeholders — including municipal governments, federal partners, and universities — the 372-page document details the state’s effort to explain, diagnose, and plan for the risks posed by climate change.
The plan is the latest deliverable of Executive Order 80, Gov. Cooper’s “commitment to address climate change and transition to a clean energy economy,” which he released on October 18th, 2018. In that landmark document — among other key goals — Cooper acknowledged that in order for the state to “maintain economic growth and development and to provide responsible environmental stewardship, we must build resilient communities and develop strategies to mitigate and prepare for climate-related impacts in North Carolina.”
Why it is needed
North Carolina, no stranger to hurricanes and wet weather, has been hit exceptionally hard in recent years. The most devastating, Hurricane Florence, made landfall on the southeastern coast of North Carolina on September 14th, 2018. Fueled by the effects of climate change, Florence caused at least $13 billion in damages, knocked out power for 1.1 million North Carolinians, and cost 142 people their lives. The state was still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Matthew, which hit the state two years earlier and caused widespread flooding, much of which lingered for weeks after the rains had stopped — the soil too saturated to allow water to infiltrate and the slope of the land too shallow to create much possibility for drainage. Less than a month after Florence, Hurricane Michael knocked out power for thousands. This year, the hurricane season is predicted to be of above-average strength, while Tropical Storm Arthur already brushed past the Outer Banks — the sixth straight year a named storm has formed before hurricane season.
Experts say it’s likely to get worse. The North Carolina Climate Science Report, a recently published, independent assessment of potential future climate change that was included in the NC Resilience Plan, thinks that it is “very likely” that heavy precipitation accompanies hurricanes increases, leading to more inland flooding. It’s “virtually certain” that rising sea level and increasing intensity of storms cause increased storm surge flooding. The report also estimates a likely increase in the intensity of hurricanes, as well as a likely increase in the frequency of tropical storms. All of these changes are due to climate change driving sea level rise and warming up the oceans.
As Katherine Skinner, Executive Director of North Carolina at the Nature Conservancy, told Climate XChange, the real danger isn’t in the classification of the hurricanes — which are determined by wind speed — but is instead posed by increasing amounts of water that are deposited on flood-vulnerable areas. With oceans warming, hurricanes will get wetter and heavier, primed to dispense thousands of gallons on coastal regions and low-lying areas, flooding homes, destroying infrastructure, and endangering lives. To see scientists, who tend to be conservative in their estimations, using terms like ‘very likely’ and ‘virtually certain’ to describe probabilistic events indicates that the future threat of extreme weather events must be taken seriously (very likely is defined as a 90-100% chance of occurring while virtually certain indicates a 99-100% chance).
While hurricanes have always been a part of life in North Carolina, little has been done in the past to prevent or guard against them. Current state policies don’t seem to be sufficient. A recent study by The Nature Conservancy on hurricanes in North Carolina found that both Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Florence exceeded the 100-year floodplain — the upper limit of risk used for a number of infrastructure decisions such as the size and strength of levees — the safety certifications of highways, and where to place new housing developments. Using satellite data, they mapped the extent of flooding and superimposed it with the state-mapped hazard zones.
The study found that “Hurricane Matthew was nearly equivalent to the extent of the 1% AEP zone while flooding from Hurricane Florence exceeded the 1% AEP zone by 22.70% and the .02% zone by 15.10%,” indicating that the danger hurricanes pose to North Carolina is currently under-represented in the risk assessment of the state’s policies. AEP stands for annual exceedance probability and quantifies the annualized risk that flooding exceeds a given level — meaning that a one percent AEP is equivalent to a 100 year flood as there’s a one percent chance of flooding of such magnitude occurring in any given year.
Climate XChange spoke to Danica Schaffer-Smith, the chief author of the study, who explained that storms that were supposed to come only every hundred years are now doing so with more frequency, overwhelming infrastructure. “Our study shows that this is really our new hurricane season and this is really something we’re going to be experiencing on a more regular basis. And these storms are more intense.” While the new normal has shifted in North Carolina, policy hasn’t caught up. Levees and dams certified to a 25-year flood standard aren’t adequate anymore. Even highways, like the I-40 and I-95 which were designed to withstand a 100-year flood, are at risk. As Danica put it, current infrastructure is “based on the old history of what a 100-year storm looks like and we know that definition has changed.”
In the event of serious flooding, the state is faced with a tough decision: rebuild houses that are almost certain to flood again or try to resettle them to higher ground. However, land outside of the floodplains is often already developed or too expensive, and there’s the human element of relocation. “People don’t want to move,” Katherine said, “they’ve been there all their lives, it’s all they know. It was given to them by their Grandpa.”
Gov. Cooper — with Florence’s impact fresh in his mind — issued EO 80 in part to address the vulnerability the state has to climate change, which he said “means sea level rise, stronger storms, and erratic weather.” Katherine helped shed some light on the timing of the executive branch’s action, “people do not develop a will to change unless they experience three major storms in a three to five year time period. We had Matthew, Florence and Michael.” Faced with the tragedies and the destruction of recent hurricanes, North Carolina was forced to respond. Is it enough?
What’s in the plan?
The NC Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan attempts to predict future change in climate and provides a summary of the aforementioned NC Climate Science Report. It also acknowledges climate justice considerations, assesses vulnerabilities of “state infrastructure, assets, programs and services within 11 critical sectors” and provides potential actions identifying “opportunities to sequester carbon, provide ecosystem benefits, and enhance resiliency”. Finally, the Plan concludes with next steps and a framework for the future. The North Carolina Office of Recovery and Resiliency (NCORR), created in 2018 as another response to the destruction of Florence, has been tasked with leading future resiliency efforts. Working with other key state agency staff, NCORR has prepared a long term strategy. The NC Resilience Plan is meant to be a continually updated document that incorporates: (1) a North Carolina Science Report, (2) state agency resilience strategies, (3) statewide vulnerability assessment and resilience strategies, and (4) the North Carolina Enhanced Hazard Mitigation Plan (EHMP).
The NC Resilience Plan is a comprehensive plan that represents an important step for North Carolina in dealing with its future, calling for enhanced data collection, planning, and action across the board. The executive summary stresses that, “there is no single means of response. Adaptation and resilience planning needs to be highly integrated processes that occur on a continuum, across all levels of government, and involving many internal and external partners and individual actions.” Working in collaboration with several government agencies, the report goes into great detail diagnosing the effects of climate change on various sectors in the state, providing an exhaustive analysis of the climate impacts and recommending resilience strategies to be implemented.
The report examines everything from agriculture and forestry to health and human services to energy. Changes are recommended across the board, some of which will require legislative action and some which can be implemented by relevant agencies. The language used varies, with some recommendations using ‘should’ — which is a non-binding suggestion — while others use the more forceful ‘will’.
One of the most interesting parts of the plan is its climate justice chapter. The normative significance of dedicating an entire section towards climate justice concerns is notable on its own. As the country is collectively processing and engulfed in discussions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, climate justice is now more important than ever.
The NC Resilience Plan defines climate justice as “a social and political movement that acknowledges the deep inequities posed by climate change impacts and identifies opportunities to focus greenhouse gas mitigation and climate change adaptation efforts on the needs of those who are most vulnerable.” North Carolina has a dire necessity for equity-based climate policy.
The climate justice chapter makes this clear, addressing the impacts of systemic racism from the onset. Centuries of discrimination have contributed to the increased vulnerability minority populations feel towards the destabilizing effects of climate change. Climate risk is another compounding vulnerability piled on top of pre-existing economic, health, social, and environmental burdens for minorities.
The Plan goes on to explain the nuances of vulnerability and how indigenous populations and immigrants are affected differently, noting that North Carolina has the largest Native American population of any state east of the Mississippi as well as half a million residents who don’t speak English very well. This creates unique challenges. For example, historic Native American settlements are often located in floodplains while many immigrant communities — which are made up of both documented and undocumented immigrants — may harbor distrust of government officials as a result of deportation and treatment by governments in their country of origin, limiting their access to emergency services and resources. Beyond race, nationality, ethnicity, and language, the climate justice chapter acknowledges other drivers of inequities such as income, age, disability, and location — each of which creates barriers to being climate resilient.
The rest of the chapter examines the specific impacts of natural disasters like wildfires, flooding and extreme heat, and identifies potentially vulnerable communities. It also examines physical infrastructure and housing disparities, inequalities in how resilience interventions serve households and communities, and spotlights environmental and climate issues that are of extra importance in North Carolina. These include energy cost burden and higher heat; workers, small businesses, and family businesses in vulnerable industries; African American property ownership; and insurance inequalities.
The chapter concludes with a list of recommendations for a number of executive branch agencies — such as the DEQ, NCORR, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of Health and Human Services — as well as suggestions for state policy changes. Just like the rest of the NC Resilience Plant, the climate justice chapter isn’t meant to be the end but rather the beginning of a discussion, calling for more research, stakeholder engagement, and policy action.
Where do we go from here?
“We have to learn to live with this water,” Katherine Skinner told Climate XChange. That means accepting and understanding the dangers climate change poses to North Carolina and taking steps to prepare and prevent future harm, a journey that the state has already begun.
Currently, the state legislature is preoccupied with COVID-19 and, with cases still rising in North Carolina, likely won’t have much time or will to do much about climate change or climate justice this session, which is set to adjourn June 30. However, state agencies — particularly those less burdened by the effects of the novel coronavirus — have an opportunity to implement changes. Many, having played an active role in the creation of the plan, are already on board.
An important report for the NC Resilience Plan is just the beginning for North Carolina. As part of EO80, working groups have been assessing environmental justice and climate change policy options, with a report due to the governor’s office by December. The state has a number of important elections this November, with votes being cast for president, governor, the U.S. Senate, and both houses of the state legislature. That means that, for those who want to see more potent action on climate change, voting this November will be incredibly important.
Much of the change North Carolina has seen in recent years — like the NC Resilience Plan — has been due to EO80 and the executive branch. Keeping Gov. Cooper in office would allow for more ambitious action, which would be enhanced by one (or both) of the chambers of the legislature flipping blue. However, should the status quo prevail, the DEQ and other state agencies will — as in their mission mandate — maintain a level of action. It remains to be seen what path North Carolina takes to meet its ambitious climate and environmental goals, but the state seems to be on the right track