Climate Change Preparing for the new realities

Environment | by Hawley Truax

On June 12 and 13, ZSR program staff and members of ZSR's Community Leadership Council (an advisory group of North Carolina leaders from the private, public and nonprofit sectors) had the good fortune to be hosted by the historic community of Edenton, NC, for a two-day meeting focused on climate change. By most accounts, the highlight of the gathering was a panel of local leaders from the area, which included: the town manager, a long-time educator, a downtown businessperson, a farmer and county commissioner, and a regional economic developer. 

Edenton is situated alongside a picturesque inlet of the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary in Northeastern NC, which the latest climate science has concluded is among most vulnerable regions in the country to sea level rise and storm surge associated with climate change. While our panelists in Edenton agreed that evidence of these trends is already apparent in and around their town, they painted an authentic and nuanced picture of the challenges associated with addressing the threat of climate change for a rural, economically distressed region.

In a community where many residents and businesses already struggle to make ends meet, how do you respond to predictions of sea level rise that threaten to inflate already unaffordable flood insurance rates? If flood maps were revised to reflect current and predicted sea level rise, how would this affect property values in a depressed real estate market that is still struggling to recover from the great recession? How might a community's open discussion of its vulnerability to climate disruption affect its ability to recruit new business and industry, especially if other coastal communities are not discussing the issue?

Our panelists' remarks were still ringing in my ears two weeks later, when a bi-partisan committee of economists and public sector leaders released a groundbreaking report titled Risky Business that highlights the economic risks associated with continuing  a "business as usual" approach to climate change. While national in scope, the report drilled down to the regional and state levels, focusing on particular sectors of the economy that are put at greatest risk by climate change. 

The report predictably highlights coastal North Carolina as one of the most vulnerable regions in the country to rising seas and greater coastal storm damage, noting that the financial value and viability of many properties and infrastructure along the state's coast are already threatened. New to me, though, were the report's estimates of the economic threat posed by the fact that the Southeast will be among the hardest hit regions in the country by rising temperatures. According to the report, it will become too hot by mid-century for people to work outside during parts of the day. This will translate into a decrease in labor pro­ductivity in sectors like construction, transportation, agriculture and manufacturing of up to 3.2 percent by the end of the century in this region. Risky Business also projects an additional 11,000 to 36,000 deaths every year in this region over the course of the century due to increases in heat-related mortality. While urban residents are at greater risk due to the "heat island effect" in cities, rural areas may be particularly challenged by a lack of local hospitals to help residents struggling with heat related illnesses.  

After acknowledging the challenge of making accurate predictions about the timing and intensity of climate change impacts, the report points out the many ways in which our society has developed the tools to make informed decisions in the face of such uncertainty. The military creates elaborate plans for a wide range of possible conflict scenarios; public health officials prepare for pandemics of low or unknown probability; emergency responders prepare for infrequent natural disasters; households buy insurance to guard against many potential perils. And, in the private sector, effective risk management is widely recognized a key component of business success and investment performance. In all these areas, decision-makers consider a range of possible futures in choosing a course of action. They work off the best information at hand and take advantage of new information as it becomes available. They cannot afford to make decisions based on conditions that were the norm ten or twenty years ago; they look ahead to what the world could be like tomorrow and in coming decades. 

Risky Business places a strong emphasis on the need for families, businesses, and communities to begin preparing for the impacts of climate change that we now know are inevitable, especially when it comes to major purchases or infrastructure investments. Is the house that you are interested in purchasing (or renovating) vulnerable to storm surge or wildfires? How vulnerable is the field or crop in which you are investing to salt water intrusion or periods of extreme heat and drought? Is your coastal town making long term infrastructure investments in transportation or water and sewer with an eye to sea level rise and extreme weather events?

All this brings me back full circle to the challenges faced by communities like Edenton, where local leaders are so acutely aware of the risks associated with even starting a community conversation about climate change. These near term risks must be weighed against the profound threats to economic vitality and quality of life that the Risky Business report predicts for vulnerable communities that fail to address their resiliency to climate impacts. To that end, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is looking for public and private sector partners who share a commitment to helping our state's communities and businesses begin incorporating an understanding of climate risks into decision making. Other states are already moving down this road. If our communities are to remain economically competitive, healthy and vibrant, North Carolina cannot afford to be stalled in the breakdown lane. 

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