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Exploring how the way we live influences climate change and its impact across the Carolinas. You also can read additional national and international climate news.

NC And Climate Change, Part 2: The Top Threats

Duncan McFadyen

The southeast United States faces a host of threats from climate change. Intensifying temperatures and extreme weather could affect anything from dam safety to airport tarmacs to the range of diseases that can thrive. The most recent National Climate Assessment points to three areas most threatened: coastal communities, the agriculture industry, and water availability. In the second of a three part series, WFAE looks at how the state is, or isn’t, preparing to adapt.

The National Climate Assessment—an occasional round-up of climate change science, commissioned unanimously by Congress in 1990—rates North Carolina’s vulnerability to sea level rise as “very high.”

The basic threat is visible in the thick, rust-colored pipes that run across Nags Head or Wrightsville Beach. They are dredging sand, pumping it either from the sea floor or unused areas to fight rising sea levels and to replenish deteriorating coastline, at the cost of millions of dollars.

Sea level has risen slowly, but steadily, over the past few decades. As global temperatures increase, the ocean warms more quickly, causing water molecules to expand (plus the ice caps melt), accelerating the speed of the increase. In 2010 a state science panel calculated a likely increase of about three feet over the next century—putting a lot of coast underwater.

But, state agencies are not allowed to prepare for a potential rise that high; the legislature banned them from doing so in 2012, fearing what that projection would do to property values and insurance.
Comedian Stephen Colbert lampooned that law on his show the Colbert Report.

“This is a brilliant solution. If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal,” Colbert said. “Problem solved.”

The state’s Coastal Resources Commission can issue a new projection in March 2016. Earlier this month, the commission agreed to use a shorter, 30-year forecast, instead of 100 years, updating it every five years.

“It’s better than not having a planning cycle,” says Victor Flatt, director of UNC’s Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources. He says 30-years conforms to a standard mortgage, but argues the timeframe remains too short.

“Many buildings last more than 30 years,” Flatt says. “A lot of infrastructure is expected to last more than 30 years—roads, bridges, sewage treatment plants.”

But if the commission enacts the 30-year projection, it will have incorporated a key adaptation—however limited—into state policy.

For now, the moratorium has a ripple effect on another major projected impact of climate change: the availability of drinking water. Back in 2011, the state environment agency considered the effects of faster sea level rise on wells and drinking water intakes. Under the state law, it no longer can.

The agency also used to incorporate increased extreme weather, flooding, and droughts into its models. It has not yet responded to a question, posed May 16th, if it still does.

“Despite a lack of interest on the state level, local activities are building,” says Jessica Grannis, an attorney and Adaptation Program Manager at George University Law’s climate center.

Grannis says local communities in many states, including North Carolina, have started to address climate change impacts, irrespective of state policies.

 Public utilities along the Catawba completed a water supply plan this month. It looks 50 years ahead at how to the region’s water supply can keep up with growth. It also factors in climate change, a big concern, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities director Barry Gullet.

“On a hot July day, the modeling shows more than 300 million gallons of water a day evaporates from the lakes,” says Gullet. “That’s a very significant amount of water.”

Gullet says as the average number of hot days increases, the plan accounts for an extra 70 million gallons of water lost each summer day.  

Grannis says the Catawba’s is one of the first such plans to incorporate climate change into its modeling.

“More and more water utilities are starting to do that, particularly in the Southwest where they’re experiencing intense drought, but I think it’s still pretty nascent,” says Grannis.

The final, major threat to the Southeast highlighted in the National Climate Assessment is to agriculture. Hotter summers, more extreme weather, and droughts will hurt livestock and crop production, a $70 billion industry. At the same time, the Department of Agriculture has no policy on climate change, and doesn’t consider it in its programs. But there’s a paradox here: It may not matter.