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Adapt to climate change for economy’s sake

Updated: May 10, 2022

Anyone looking for evidence that the intense rain events, droughts and hurricanes increasingly impacting North Carolina are going to damage the state’s economy should consider Bubba O’Leary’s General Store in Chimney Rock.

In February 2017, about three months after the nearby Party Rock Fire burned for 25 days, scorching 7,142 acres of state park and private land and blanketing the town with smoke, the Asheville Citizen-Times interviewed the store’s owner and Chimney Rock’s mayor, Peter O’Leary.

“It’s not like people are desperate, but it certainly had a negative impact and everyone is feeling the pinch,” he told the newspaper.

O’Leary estimated an evacuation at the peak of the November fire cost him about $30,000 in profits, or about 25-30 percent of what he was hoping to accumulate for the winter.

This was a tame fire compared to those that raged across the Great Smoky Mountains in 2016 and to this year’s California wildfires, but even though no one died and no homes or businesses burned, Chimney Rock suffered an economic hit.

Ecologists pointed out afterwards that fire is a natural part of the Southern Appalachian landscape and that overall, the forests would benefit. Even so, the Party Rock fire was a historic fire that started during a historic drought, like the 2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires that killed 14 people and burned more that 17,000 acres in Tennessee. In that fire, more than 2,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released by the Trump Administration on the day after Thanksgiving, predicts that the frequency and intensity of wildfires will become more common in the Southeast and that the 2016 Great Smoky Mountains wildfires may have been just the beginning of an unwelcome trend.

It appears we are already experiencing the impact of climate change and though the environmental consequences have long been the focus, the impact on the economy gets its due in this new report.

“In the absence of significant global mitigation action and regional adaptation efforts, rising temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in extreme events are expected to increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property, labor productivity, and the vitality of our communities,” the report says in its summary findings.

In addition to more wildfires, the report predicts more intense hurricanes like Hurricane Florence, the monster that made landfall in September and dumped almost 36 inches of rain on some regions of the North Carolina coast. That deluge, coupled with extensive wind damage and a strong storm surge, caused massive flooding and an estimated $17.9 billion in damage.

On Nov. 28, Gov. Roy Cooper sent a request to North Carolina’s congressional delegation for $6.3 billion, bringing the state’s full federal request to $8.8 billion, to help the state and communities recover from the disaster.

Among the needs Cooper identified in the request were repairing highways and interstates, reviving businesses that lost workers, income and stock, and helping farmers whose crops were ruined.

Florence was the wettest tropical cyclone ever recorded in North Carolina. In the face of these and other extreme weather events, it is certainly possible to continue to deny human-caused climate change is occurring, as President Trump did when he told reporters “I don’t believe it,” referring to the federal climate assessment.

Most of the rest of us would rather not believe it either. For starters, the consequences of climate change aren’t yet having a significant impact on most of our lives. For many non-scientists, the whole idea is still pretty abstract. Besides, believing it forces us to accept that humans have, for the most part inadvertently and unintentionally, unleashed the prospect of a world that will be significantly less hospitable in less than a century. It also forces us to confront the fact we ought to do something about it, and that something will be complicated and fraught with hard choices.

Maybe that’s what prompted the North Carolina legislature, at the behest of a group of businesses and property owners, to pass HB 819 in 2012. That’s the law that bans state and local agencies from basing coastal policies on long-term scientific models indicating an accelerating rise in sea level.

But even those who don’t accept the implications of climate change science can’t ignore the reality of the extreme weather events it predicted and the devastation they’ve wrought in North Carolina over the past few years. The impact these events have had on people’s lives is wrenching and the cost, not just to local economies but to all of us as taxpayers, is enormous.

Refusing to acknowledge this reality or adapt public policy accordingly is foolhardy and has already proved not only costly, but catastrophic for many in the most vulnerable areas.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment says that “more immediate and substantial global greenhouse gas emissions reductions, as well as regional adaptation efforts” are needed.

It goes on to say that mitigation and adaptation actions present opportunities to improve local economies, for example, infrastructure investment. Would it not be wiser to seek out and grasp those opportunities rather than continue on a path that looks increasingly perilous?

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