The Influencer Series

Climate change is real and it’s caused by humans, NC’s community leaders say

More from the series

The North Carolina Influencer series

The Charlotte Observer, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun in Durham are launching a conversation between readers and important thought leaders throughout North Carolina.

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While the nation is divided on the question of global warming, North Carolina’s business and cultural leaders overwhelmingly believe that climate change is real and that human activities are contributing to the problem. The angst is shared across the ideological spectrum, though finding a consensus on solutions is another matter.

Many also voiced frustration that the state legislature barred the use of scientific climate projections to guide growth planning policy. But that frustration is balanced by an acknowledgment that some of the most widely publicized environmental risks — such as coal ash basins and hog waste lagoons — are tied to industries that anchor the economy, employing thousands of people and serving millions of customers.

The state’s leaders in business, politics and culture offered their thoughts on climate change, sea level rise and sustainable development as part of the NC Influencers series for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. Their solutions ranged from minimalist strategies in a bid to protect local economies from costly regulation, to ambitious goals that would tame the waters on a scale suggesting the canals of Venice or the locks of Holland.

The 45 Influencers who responded to survey questions were asked to offer insights at a moment in time when North Carolina flooding images were at their most vivid, just days after Hurricane Florence pummeled the North Carolina and left thousands displaced or homeless.

Some leaders said that development should be restricted — or even banned — along the state’s coast and in lowland areas prone to flooding. Several suggested buying out local residents and relocating populations to safer areas before the next mega-storm strikes.

“In the past two years North Carolina has had two 500 year storms in Matthew and Florence, so it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators.

The entire group of 60 Influencers in the series includes former governors, university presidents, corporate executives, nonprofit leaders, economic developers, philanthropists, chefs and authors. In past surveys, they have addressed such issues as health care, Confederate monuments, education, voter ID and gerrymandering.

On the question of man-made climate change, all but two respondents said they believe it is real: Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, and Larry Wooten, president of the N.C. Farm Bureau, though Wooten hedged his bets on the issue.

“There is room for debate on whether climate change is man-made or a natural occurrence or a combination of both,” said Wooten, a Democrat. “What cannot be debated, and farmers across the world agree, is that the climate is changing.”

Valone, a Republican, didn’t mince his words, dismissing climate change as a hoax.

“Whatever ‘consensus’ exists on climate change has been the result of politically-motivated faux research,” Valone said. “No methodologically sound scientific study has yet demonstrated that climate change, if it is occurring at all, results from man-made factors.”

Richard Vinroot, a lawyer and Charlotte mayor in the 1990s, believes humans are likely contributors to climate change, but said little can be done to protect residents from coastal flooding other than increasing the distances between homes and waterways.

From many of the Influencers, however, solutions poured out. Some suggested now is the time to double down on solar power, wind energy and mass transit to limit carbon emissions. Other suggestions ranged from facing reality and restricting new development, to embarking on a comprehensive network of flood controls.

“The truth is,” said Sallie Shuping Russell, former managing director of BlackRock Private Equity Partners, “a lot of these areas are low-lying and are going to flood.”

Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, said that “North Carolina should discourage development along flood plains and invest in levies and other flood mitigation systems.”

Walter Dalton, the state’s Lt. Governor from 2009 to 2013, and now president of Isothermal Community College in Spindale, believes we need “elevated structures, permeable surfaces, protection of marsh land.”

Former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley is among those who endorses a “relocation effort,” especially for people living in “impoverished areas.”

Duke University law professor James Coleman, said North Carolina should learn from the experience of other societies on what it takes to become flood-proof.

“It makes no sense to continue to build on land that predictably will be flooded on a regular basis, requiring us to incur substantial public expenses to rebuild” said Coleman, who is also director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, and co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke.

“We also should learn from what other countries are doing,” Coleman said. “The Dutch rarely have flooding because they have incorporated flood control in their development projects. Every coastal community should be incorporating such features in their plans.”

The survey respondents also expressed concern about the environmental risks posed by coal ash ponds and hog waste lagoons, some of which were flooded and breached during the flooding. Several hundred hog lagoons prone to flooding have been shut down in past years, but the realization after Hurricane Florence that North Carolina’s flood risks have been underestimated is raising questions about the long-term risk that hog lagoons pose.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has not said to what extent the hog lagoons polluted state waters, but said six sustained structural damage, 32 overflowed and 48 were within 3 inches of overflowing. North Carolina has 3,300 lagoons, in which swine urine and feces are broken down by microbes, producing a treated material that is used as spray fertilizer.

Wooten of the Farm Bureau noted that farmers worked around the clock ahead of the hurricane to pump and prepare their lagoons. “Our farmers should be commended instead of questioned for the excellent job they performed in preventing loss of animals and environmental damage,” he said.

As for coal ash, Duke Energy is in the midst of a 15-year, $5-billion project in which it’s excavating 22 basins and moving the ash to lined landfills. It’s also securing nine other basins by capping them off. The vast majority of the respondents praised Duke Energy’s efforts to relocate or stabilize the ash it has accumulated over decades of burning coal to generate electricity.

Lynn Good, the CEO of Charlotte-based Duke Energy, said the company has already moved 18 million tons of ash to lined landfills and is recycling 70 percent of the ash, which contains heavy metals such as arsenic and selenium, for use in construction materials.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality said last week that two of Duke’s coal ash storage ponds flooded during Hurricane Florence, but that the flooding in the Neuse River in Goldsboro and the Cape Fear River in Wilmington did not contaminate public waters.

Good is not the only Influencer who has links to Duke Energy. Former Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who worked at Duke nearly two decades, offered a reminder of why Duke is under a state legislative mandate to address its coal ash problem.

“Duke needs to improve fixing leaks with a sense of urgency at numerous sites,” McCrory wrote.

About the series

This is the latest in a series of surveys The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun is conducting with the Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to North Carolinians. This report focused on the environment. Next week, look for the report on the state’s transportation and infrastructure needs.

We want to hear from you: Please use the form below to ask questions to our panel of Influencers about guns, drugs and criminal justice.

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