Climate Change Economic concerns of a small town in the face of rising sea levels

Environment, News

Mary Newsom is a member of ZSR's Community Leadership Council and Associate Director of Urban and Regional Affairs at UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute, a nonpartisan, applied research and community outreach institute at UNC Charlotte, seeking solutions to the social, economic and environmental challenges facing our communities.

As a journalist, I've come to see the value in simply being in the same room with people, especially those you may disagree with. It's something about the three-dimensionality of it, compared to one- or two-dimensional views of people and places we get from reading about them or seeing them on TV.

The ZSR Community Leadership Council's spring 2014 trip to Edenton to hear concerns about climate change highlighted for me how impressions change when you're in a real place and in the room with people who care about that place.

I had never visited Edenton. I knew only that it was a historic small town in an area of the state remote from anywhere I've lived and worked. Not surprisingly, Edenton charmed me with its history and its residents' pride of place. But for me, the most powerful part of the visit came in an upstairs room at the restored, 1767 Chowan County Courthouse. First, though, some background.

We kicked off our meeting with a visit to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge where we saw undeniable evidence of sea level rise: shorelines inching inland and trees dead from salt water intrusion. Seeing the undeniable effects of rising seas was powerful.

Two years earlier, North Carolina had been highlighted in the news, mostly as the butt of late-night comedy, for a new law banning any state policies based on scientific predictions of sea level rise. From the inland safety of Charlotte (748 feet above sea level) I laughed with the comics but cringed at the law, chalking it up to a general lack of scientific understanding and to political partisanship trumping other concerns.

But as I heard six Chowan County civic leaders discuss challenges facing their economically depressed region, my two-dimensional view expanded. County population is ebbing. Median income is just $34,420. Some 30 percent of residents live below the poverty level. Panelists described a region withering for lack of jobs, industry, investment and newcomers.

All six panelists said they know the sea is rising – even Jeff Smith, a county commissioner who thinks it's just nature, not human-caused. Their worry, said Vann Rogerson of North Carolina's Northeast Alliance (now the NCEast Alliance), was that any maps showing where land might be submerged would make insurance too costly for struggling businesses and low-income residents, as well as any hoped-for new industry. Even deciding to raise road levels to avert flooding, he said, could put them at a competitive recruiting disadvantage with rival regions who'd point and say "See, they'll be flooded in 50 years, so don't go there."

Climate change is real. Virtually all of the world's climate scientists agree that humans are causing it. The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation is working to help educate North Carolinians about what they can do to slow it down, mitigate its impacts and create strong, long-lasting communities in the face of such change. In Chowan County it wasn't ignorance that fueled their fight against state plans showing where seas would rise. It was economic anxiety. No matter what they believed about climate change, they were struggling to find a better future for a place they love. Any one of us who has ever loved the place we call home can understand and appreciate that.