Almost five years to the day after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, three North Carolina congressmen hosted an event Wednesday where scientists and environmental organizations outlined the threats a warmer climate and wetter atmosphere pose to North Carolina.
U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy, who observed the impacts of Hurricane Dorian’s record storm surge firsthand shortly after being elected to Congress, led most of Wednesday’s Water Adaptation to Ensure Regional Success (WATERS) Summit. Afterward, Murphy, a Greenville Republican, told The News & Observer that he believes most people understand the climate is changing and the threats it poses.
“They’ve seen how the rivers have changed or they’ve seen how the shoreline has changed, especially folks that have lived out on the Outer Banks for years and have seen how things have changed in their lifetime,” said Murphy, who hosted Wednesday’s event along with U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield, a Wilson Democrat, and David Rouzer, a Wilmington Republican.
Wednesday’s event at a Greenville Hilton showed how the dialogue on climate change in North Carolina has shifted in recent years.
Less than a decade ago, the state’s Republican-led General Assembly passed the infamous sea level rise bill, temporarily curtailing the ability of state agencies to consider a rising Atlantic Ocean in setting regulations. On Wednesday, two Republican members of Congress hosted a conference where scientists told local officials and a bipartisan group of legislators about the threats rainfall and higher seas pose to communities across the state, calling for politicians to urgently work on adaptation.
Laura Moore, a UNC-Chapel Hill coastal geomorphologist and director of the Collaboratory for Coastal Adaptation over Space and Time, told the roughly 110 attendees that they need to consider adaptation efforts that look substantially different from the status quo.
For instance, Moore said, a barrier island that is not protected with dunes will grow up and toward the mainland over time as tides and storm surge push sand on top of and across it.
But if a three-meter dune is built up to protect a coastal road, sand is not allowed to build up or cross over the road. That leaves the island — and the road — in place even as the sea rises around it, a dynamic that is playing out right now along Highway 12 in the Outer Banks.
Effectively, Moore said, protecting the road with a large dune means sacrificing the barrier island’s long-term health to support short-term transportation needs.
“There is no panacea,” Moore said, “but I really believe that if we’re creative and willing to think long-term and if we’re willing to accept that living at the coast in the future is going to have to look a lot different than it looks right now, I think we will be able to adapt.”
Murphy said he remains opposed to the Democratic-sponsored $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill that remains in congressional limbo despite its potential to help with climate adaptation and further limit the emissions worsening global warming. Instead, Murphy said he would like to see a “surgical” approach to climate adaptation.
During Wednesday’s event, for example, Jay Faison of the American Flood Coalition said there are 625,539 homes in North Carolina within the 100-year floodplain, meaning they have a 1% chance of flooding in any given year. Shifting flood protections to protect against a larger, 500-year flood, one that has a .2% chance of happening in a given year, would reduce the state’s flood risk by 77%, Faison said.
Murphy is interested in exploring that so-called 500-year flood standard, which has meant higher elevation over a broader space in places like Houston. He said, “We have to bite some bullets. There’s going to be some emotional decisions that are going to need to be made and we need to probably look at a 500-year plan.”
Rouzer, who represents a district following Interstate 40 from Johnston County to Wilmington, is familiar with the effect of climate change on both agricultural and coastal communities. Rouzer also indicated that he is open to including flood mitigation funding in both the 2023 Farm Bill and the 2022 Water Resources Development Act.
Near the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Rouzer floated the idea of paying North Carolina farmers to divert additional floodwaters onto cropland that would already be imperiled, potentially providing financial incentives to help the farmers while also lowering risk to nearby homes.
“I think we have to look at things a little outside of the box,” Rouzer said.
Shifting attitudes on climate change
In 2012, the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission’s Science Panel published a sea level rise report predicting that high-end sea level rise scenarios would see the Atlantic Ocean rise 39 inches by 2100. The Republican-controlled General Assembly responded by passing a law saying the state Coastal Resources Commission and environmental agencies could not use sea-level rise predictions to set regulations for the next four years.
Reide Corbett, now the executive director of East Carolina University’s Coastal Studies Institute, served on the science commission that produced the report. Wednesday, he said, “It was my first sort of foray into audiences like this. It was an eye opener for a young scientist to get involved in these sorts of conversations, which need to happen and I’m thrilled this is happening.”
But, Corbett said, the scenario that caught so much attention from the development community was the extreme in 2012. Now, he said, scientists believe it is “likely” that by 2100 the northern Outer Banks could experience about 4.5 feet of sea level rise and the Wilmington area about 2 feet.
North Carolina’s dialogue around climate change has markedly shifted since the passage of that much-derided 2012 bill, with some pointing to the dual impacts of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew and 2018’s Hurricane Florence, immense storms that caused billions of dollars in damage throughout the state.
Legislative Republicans, for instance, have acknowledged that a further shift away from coal-generated power is inevitable. That idea is central to the energy legislation compromise that Gov. Roy Cooper signed Wednesday.
House Bill 951 directs the N.C. Utilities Commission to consider reliability and the cheapest options as it develops carbon reduction plans that will guide Duke Energy toward a 70% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050.
Resilience in NC budget
N.C. House Majority Leader John Bell, a Goldsboro Republican, said in a video message that the budget proposal legislative Republicans presented to Cooper included several pots of money for resilience. Bell said the proposed budget includes more than $50 million to remove debris from streams and $40 million to help fund beach nourishment projects.
The proposal also includes funding streams to help local governments with flooding problems. Bell said those include $25 million to the Golden LEAF Foundation to administer funds for small-scale resilience projects, $20 million for a flood blueprint that would be used to identify areas at risk of flooding and $15 million for a new disaster relief and mitigation fund.
“I am confident that North Carolina will lead the way on flooding resiliency and be a model for the best in the country,” Bell said.
This story was produced with financial support from 1Earth Fund, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.