Evidence of sea-level rise is everywhere on North Carolina’s coast, from Wilmington to Corolla. It is visible in the soil that won’t drain after a heavy rain and in the maritime forests that are dying as a result of saltwater intrusion. Changes are happening gradually, but longtime coastal residents can observe them, and their concern is growing. They wonder whether their property investments are secure.
When the Coastal Resources Commission released its updated sea-level rise report earlier this week, we found it didn’t tell the whole story. The report confirms what we already knew: The seas are rising. It shows why coastal communities face uncertainty, but the report cannot do what political leaders must do. They must ask the uncomfortable question: Can we stem the rising tide?
It was three years ago when the North Carolina General Assembly received unwanted national notoriety for rejecting the commission’s first report on sea-level rise, which made projections for the rest of the century.
While the current report was being prepared, what steps was the McCrory administration taking to plan for the safety and well-being of North Carolina communities? The answer, sadly, appears to be none.
But now, the federal government has called for action. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recently proposed limits on carbon pollution, known as the Clean Power Plan, give us a fighting chance to do our part in addressing climate change. If we respond decisively, this landmark proposal can help us achieve profound progress toward reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to climate change and sea-level rise and harming our environment and public health.
The proposed rule, which EPA will finalize this summer, provides tremendous flexibility to states, allowing each to tailor its own plan for meeting the emission reductions required by 2030. After EPA finalizes its rule, states will have a year to complete their plans.
Fortunately, North Carolina has a head start. We can build on our existing energy efficiency and programs like our Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard and other state policies that support clean energy.
The REPS, overwhelmingly adopted with bipartisan support in 2007, and other pragmatic clean-energy policies sparked a boom in North Carolina’s clean-energy workforce. Jobs in the clean-energy sector have swelled from just 1,824 in 2007 to nearly 23,000 in 2014. North Carolina consistently ranks first in the Southeast and in the top five states nationally for solar. And this is just the beginning. Transitioning to a cleaner, greener energy economy offers great opportunities for job growth.
But instead of keeping this momentum going for both the economy and the environment, the McCrory administration is outright opposing the EPA plan. While other states, such as South Carolina under the leadership of Gov. Nikki Haley, have created stakeholder processes to get broad input on how to craft their Clean Power Plans, McCrory has been silent about how North Carolina might meet the proposed reductions in carbon emissions.
So far, the administration has taken no public steps to engage residents, renewable energy providers or other businesses in the essential discussion of how our state will design a workable plan to reduce carbon emissions while preparing to adapt to minimize the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise already upon us.
How much longer will the McCrory administration avoid taking action?
North Carolinians have a right to expect our leaders to provide for the public’s safety and to rise to the challenge of solving the major problems we face. If North Carolina is to remain a leader in the Southeast, it’s time for thoughtful action and decisive leadership. McCrory has an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of North Carolinians for many generations to come.
Will he seize the moment?
Molly Diggins is state director of the N.C. Sierra Club. Harvey Richmond is a former senior environmental analyst in EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.