Getting Climate Resilience Right in North Carolina

The state’s “Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan” is expected to outline a comprehensive strategy to help North Carolina stay ahead of the ever-escalating climate crisis. It can’t come soon enough as hurricane season looms especially large this year, and COVID-19 reveals the deep cracks and fissures in our nation’s response preparedness.
Lumberton, NC, USA—October 12, 2016—Flood waters in neighborhoods impacted by Hurricane Matthew. Since then Hurricanes Florence and Dorian have also struck the state.
Credit: FEMA, Photo by Jocelyn Augustino - Oct 12, 2016

As hurricane season looms especially large this year, and COVID-19 reveals the deep cracks and fissures in our nation’s response preparedness, North Carolina is gearing up to release its long-awaited plan to bolster climate resilience. The state’s “Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan” is expected to outline a comprehensive strategy to help North Carolina stay ahead of the ever-escalating climate crisis. It can’t come soon enough.

But publishing a plan does not automatically equate to implementing a plan. The success of North Carolina’s resilience plan will ultimately be determined by the steps Governor Roy Cooper, the legislature, and state’s agencies take to implement the recommendations. That takes leadership and a firm directive from on high that climate resilience is a priority for the state—a mandate that Governor Cooper has fortunately made abundantly clear.

When the Governor signed Executive Order 80 in October 2018 he instructed state agencies to integrate climate adaptation and resiliency planning into their policies, programs, and operations, recognizing that the climate crisis touches nearly every aspect of government planning and decision-making. In another major step forward, the Governor called for the state to develop a resilience plan.

Eighteen months later, much now hinges on the effectiveness and implementation of that plan. At its core, the resilience plan should feature two bedrock components that future climate efforts can further build upon.

Assess the Climate Risks and Prepare for Future Climate Impacts

A climate risk assessment should identify vulnerable infrastructure assets, communities that have the most vulnerable housing stock, public safety facilities located in harm’s way and a host of other much-needed information. Such an assessment could be developed by drawing on the recently completed North Carolina Climate Science Report.

While the anticipated resilience plan will include an initial first-order approximation of the state’s risks, it won’t be the data-driven, analytical risk assessment that’s needed and the Governor called for. But based on information released by the state’s Climate Change Interagency Council, one of the recommendations will be to conduct such an assessment over the next year.

In addition, the state needs to ensure that planning for future climate impacts becomes a routine exercise. The resilience plan will recommend that the state make climate resilience a permanent feature of the State Hazard Mitigation Plan. Submitted every five years for approval by FEMA, this document is the definitive source of information the state produces on how to reduce risk from disasters, but it currently does little to assess how climate change will affect the frequency and magnitude of future disasters. Implementing this recommendation would ensure that North Carolina is re-examining its vulnerabilities to climate impacts on a regular basis.

Consider Climate Impacts in State Decision-Making

Governor Cooper should also direct his state agencies to review permits, grant criteria, regulations, guidance documents—all the decisions they already make—and identify where future climate impacts should be considered, but currently are not. It is not clear if this will be part of the resilience plan’s recommendations, but Governor Cooper should take this critical step anyway.

State agencies in North Carolina make decisions every day that may prove unwise later, because they fail to account for a future altered by climate change. For example, when a stormwater permit is issued, or funding is provided for construction projects, or an industrial facility is approved, these are decisions that lock major capital investments in place for decades to come.

We may realize later that a factory, or sewage treatment plant, or hospital was allowed to be built in a very impractical location. A community may find that the stormwater system the state approved is wholly insufficient for future extreme weather events. Absent consideration of future climate impacts, people’s homes will continue to be built in harm’s way (North Carolina already has many that are located in low-lying floodplains or coastal areas). These are all costly, but avoidable, mistakes. 

Governor Cooper should, at a minimum, direct the state’s agencies to evaluate their regulations, grant criteria, and guidance documents and identify those that could lead to regrettable outcomes. The state can use this inventory to prioritize needed change and move towards making more informed decisions that consider future climate impacts.  

The First Step, Not the Last

There are many other essential aspects of the resilience plan that we are eager to review, including a Climate Justice component and a Natural and Working Lands Action Plan that will evaluate how natural resource management can both decrease emissions and support climate adaptation. The state’s agencies will present their initial qualitative assessments of the risks the state faces across multiple sectors of infrastructure, the economy, public health, and the environment.

The key, however, is to continue moving the plan forward. The resilience plan that will be unveiled is not the final word on what North Carolina must do to guard against the future impacts of climate change. It’s the first step towards developing a more complete picture of the state’s risks and vulnerabilities and the actions it will take to address them.

NRDC looks forward to working with Governor Cooper and his administration to move these efforts forward. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, and it’s going to take resources, time, and a strong commitment to making North Carolina prepared for a future that looks very different from the past or present.


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