Politics & Government

‘Not too late, but it soon may be’: Cooper urges Congress to lead on climate change

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper called on the United States to reassert itself as a global leader in the fight against climate change, telling a divided congressional committee of the economic, commercial and personal toll of climate change to his state while touting his moves as chief executive.

“We can’t afford not to take urgent action to fight climate change. It is not too late, but it soon may be,” Cooper told members of the U.S. House’s Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday in the first of a series of Democratic-led hearings on climate change.

The hearings came on the same day that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a report showing 14 weather and climate disasters showing 14 weather and climate disasters causing more than $1 billion in damages in the United States last year, including Hurricane Florence which battered North Carolina in September and killed 43 in the state. The report said 2018 was the fourth-warmest year on record, trailing only 2016, 2015 and 2017.

Cooper appeared alongside Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican. Cooper said there is “overwhelming scientific consensus” on climate change and the role humans are playing in it. And he outlined damage that storms and severe weather events have caused in North Carolina in recent years, including hurricanes Matthew and Florence, mudslides in the mountains, animal- and crop-killing heat in the summers and the loss of crops due to flooding and heavy rains.

“Scientists have found that climate change makes weather more erratic. It makes storms larger and more powerful and intensifies heavy rainfall and droughts. North Carolinians unfortunately know this the hard way,” Cooper said, who estimated that Florence did $17 billion in damage to North Carolina.

Cooper’s green goals

Cooper has made combating climate change a significant part of his agenda. He issued Executive Order No. 80 in October, formalizing previous support for the 2015 Paris Agreement goals and for the United States Climate Alliance, a group of 20 states pledging to meet reduced emission goals. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris accords in September 2017.

Among the goals to be reached by 2025 laid out by Cooper: reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 2005 levels; increase registered, zero-emission vehicles to 80,000; and reduce energy consumption in state-owned buildings by at least 40 percent from 2002-03 levels. The executive order created a North Carolina Climate Change Interagency Council and called on the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to develop a clean energy plan.

DEQ released a state greenhouse gas inventory earlier this year, as part of the project.

Cooper came out against drilling for oil and seismic testing off the coast of North Carolina, citing potential disruptions of the state’s coastal tourism and fishing industries, a position he reiterated to the House committee. He also urged lawmakers to not roll back environmental protections.

“His commitment to addressing climate change is a breath of fresh air,” said Drew Ball, the executive director of Environment North Carolina, an advocacy organization pushing for 100 percent renewable energy. “We think Gov. Cooper gets it.”

But some have questioned Cooper’s urgency on the issue. A 2018 report from the United Nations concluded that humans have about 12 years to reverse the most devastating effects of climate change. Despite Cooper’s actions, he and other politicians have “a misunderstanding of the climate urgency,” said Jim Warren, director of NC WARN, an environmental advocacy group based in Durham.

Cooper allowed permitting for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would carry natural gas from West Virginia through Virginia and North Carolina. The pipeline has been delayed several times and mired in controversy, about its cost overruns, its environmental impacts and Cooper’s role in negotiating with its developer.

Burning natural gas is better for the environment than burning gas or coal, leading some to believe it could serve as an important bridge fuel as the nation moves toward renewable energy. But methane released before natural gas is burned, often through leaks, is more powerful at trapping carbon dioxide.

“We simply have to have a new level of strong leadership from Gov. Cooper and others if humanity is going to have a chance to avert runaway climate change — and social chaos and economic chaos, too,” Warren said.

‘Everything’ on the table

Cooper, in comments after the hearing, tried to elevate the issue, calling on the federal government to lead and consider ideas like a carbon tax and Green New Deal as well as incentives to promote renewable energies.

“Everything needs to be on the table here,” Cooper said. “The overwhelming scientific evidence shows humans do cause climate change, we’re a significant contributor toward climate change and we need to act quickly if we’re going to have an effect and stop the disaster that may occur.”

Democrats, in control of the House for the first time since 2009, have made responding to climate change one of their top priorities. But Republicans on the committee expressed skepticism at the committee’s plan and its focus.

“Climate change is an urgent problem. It demands urgent action,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat and the committee’s chairman.

Republicans pushed back, preferring to grill Cooper and Baker on issues like how a lack of forest management, not climate change, contributes to larger wildfires; the federal government’s ownership of large portions of Western states; and concerns about punishing energy-producing states, particularly on the Gulf Coast.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, an Arkansas Republican, asked Cooper about North Carolina’s forest management and its exporting of wood pellets to Europe, which burns them as a replacement for fossil fuels. Cooper said he was concerned about the use of wood pellets.

“His administration continues to back some of the most destructive and carbon-emitting projects in the nation,” said Danna Smith, executive director of Dogwood Alliance, which aims to protect Southern forests, in a statement. “North Carolina is now a world leader — if not the world leader — in the production and export of wood pellets, one of the greatest climate scams to threaten our planet’s health.”

Republicans in the state have adopted a similar tactic, hitting Cooper for playing to a national audience instead of focusing on issues at home — like forest management and the GenX chemical discharge into the Cape Fear River.

“Gov. Cooper is an en vogue environmentalist. He says he’s an environmentalist in the fashionable way,” said Donald Bryson, president and CEO of the Civitas Institute. “He’s concerned about the environment in a way that is popular, but not in a way that is functional for the people of North Carolina.”

In his testimony, Cooper pointed to the impacts of climate change on the least fortunate citizens of North Carolina, calling it a “human tragedy” when parts of the state are repeatedly damaged by storms or floods. He said states need more flexibility in spending federal disaster aid to rebuild stronger than before, paying for mitigation or even “strategic retreat.” He said the state has paid farmers hit hardest by the storms and seen some give up the industry because of the repeated troubles.

“The people who can afford it the least often get hit the hardest in these natural disasters,” he said.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.
  Comments