A block from the imperiled beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, Bob Edwards and his wife, Anita, had the same reaction on the night of Nov. 8 as they sat watching America elect a president who had dismissed climate change as a hoax.
“We were physically ill, because of the steps backward we were going to take on global warming, on health care and many other areas where we’ve made progress over the last years,” Edwards, the Democratic mayor of Nags Head, said of Donald Trump’s election.
Edwards and fellow property owners have fretted for years about gradually rising seas – even more so about scientists’ warnings that heat-trapping gases could melt enough Arctic ice in the decades ahead to send the waters several feet higher and submerge much of the barrier islands.
With Trump’s triumph, many folks along North Carolina’s coast – from fishermen to farmers to hotel operators and restaurateurs who rely on tourism – are nervous. They’re worried about what’s coming from the president-elect, especially after he named a leading global-warming contrarian, Myron Ebell, to handle his transition on environmental matters.
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The groups can take solace that Trump already has inched away from a hard-line posture. He told The New York Times this week that he will keep an “open mind” about climate change, the possibility that humans helped cause it and whether he should carry out a campaign pledge to pull out of the 2015 Paris treaty on climate change. The accord, negotiated by the United States and 194 other nations, sets a goal of holding the average global temperature rise this century to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).
Trump is in the process of surrounding himself with people who are among the most radical and intransigent climate deniers. That’s cause for concern.
David Goldston, chief lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Council
Regardless of Trump’s latest posture, environmental and grass-roots groups across the country are girding for a fight if the Trump administration attempts a radical retreat from President Barack Obama’s programs to slash U.S. carbon emissions.
“Even though President-elect Trump might not believe in it, global warming is a reality,” Edwards said. “Let’s get prepared for it. Let’s not bury our heads in the sand like some of our politicians like to do.”
Since at least as early as 2011, Trump has lit up his Twitter account scores of times to mock scientists’ assertions that the planet is warming.
During the campaign, Trump said he would cut off the U.S. government’s contribution of “billions of dollars” to United Nations climate change initiatives. Actually, the United States doesn’t give the U.N. anywhere near that amount. While the United States provides hundreds of millions of dollars to international funds dedicated to mitigating global warming, only about $10 million per year goes to a fund loosely affiliated with the U.N. – the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which facilitated the Paris treaty.
After the election, Trump named Ebell the director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the business-bankrolled Competitive Enterprise Institute to shape his environmental team. Ebell, who has criticized warnings about climate change as alarmist, also chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition, financed by conservative U.S. and foreign nonprofit groups including Americans for Prosperity, a libertarian group backed by oil industry billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
Within 48 hours of his election as vice president, Mike Pence vowed to end what’s been dubbed Obama’s “war on coal,” the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide gas.
Obama used presidential executive orders to put in place his Clean Power Plan last year, setting states on a path to reduce the nation’s carbon emissions to 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. The Supreme Court later put the plan on hold.
But market forces may affect coal jobs, too. Jeffrey Peters, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, wrote this month on Rawstory.com that U.S. Energy Information Administration data shows power plants’ carbon emissions are already 21 percent below 2005 levels – two-thirds of the way toward Obama’s 2030 goal. He said electric utilities had scaled back their use of coal in favor of cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas and renewable energy sources such as solar power.
21% The reduction in carbon emissions from U.S. electric utilities below 2005 levels, mainly due to switching to cheaper, cleaner-burning natural gas, according to an analysis of Energy Department data by Stanford University researcher Jeffrey Peters
Duke Energy alone has retired 40 coal-fired power plants, including seven in the Carolinas, since 2011. It has converted others to natural gas and has set a goal of turning to lower-carbon fuels.
Even so, environmentalists are bracing for a fight with Trump.
“He will face enormous legal obstacles if he tries to implement the kind of reversals he talked about during the campaign,” David Goldston, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s director of government affairs, said in a phone interview.
Environmental groups also are expected to step up efforts to court Republican politicians, especially those in the most vulnerable coastal zones, to join in a bipartisan push that could wipe out the GOP’s congressional majorities with respect to global warming issues.
Early this year, the grass-roots Citizens’ Climate Lobby persuaded two Florida congressmen, parts of whose districts are routinely deluged with seawater during storms, to start a bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. Within months, the caucus had 20 members, half of them Republicans – in observance of a “Noah’s Ark” policy in which each new member is paired with one from the opposite party.
One of those Republicans has since retired and two others were defeated. But a caucus co-founder, GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Florida, said in an email exchange that they will soon be replaced, and he expects the caucus to grow next year.
Curbelo noted that many people in his district south of Miami “live near sea level and near the sea” and want political leaders who “take this situation seriously and are focused on finding solutions.”
On Nov. 15, more than 300 members of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, including five North Carolinians, fanned out across the U.S. Capitol, meeting with about 350 congressional offices, spokesman Steve Valk said.
“We’re one of the organizations that is actually engaging Republican offices and bringing Republicans and Democrats together,” he said.
Valk echoed scientists’ warnings that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are now 400 parts per million, 40 percent above pre-industrial levels and nearing a “tipping point” when the Earth’s warming could be unstoppable.
So far, the caucus hasn’t drawn a member from North Carolina, whose residents favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in the coastal counties and statewide by more than 175,000 votes. The state’s two U.S. House of Representatives members representing coastal residents, Republican Reps. Walter Jones and David Rouzer, have shown no interest in recalibrating their climate change positions, at least publicly.
Jones, whose district includes the Outer Banks, “is skeptical of the theory of man-made climate change,” spokeswoman Allison Tucker said. He also opposes Obama’s Clean Power Plan, because “it would dramatically raise the cost of power for American consumers,” she said.
The office of Rouzer, whose district includes the state’s biggest coastal city, Wilmington, did not respond to several phone and email inquiries.
Climate scientists say global warming also will increase turbulent weather and flooding in western parts of the state. RepublicanRep. Robert Pittenger, whose district runs from Charlotte through seven counties to the east, also objects to Obama’s “extreme position” on climate change and would support a Trump rollback of the power plant goals, spokesman Jamie Bowers said.
Goldston said Republicans had been slowly awakening to the reality of climate change and before the election were “constantly trying to reposition themselves as both the scientific and political facts became more and more overwhelming.”
They try to avoid the word ‘sea level rise,’ but everybody sees it. Where political will is lacking is in thinking about measures to deal with it or to curb it.
anthropologist Christine Avenarius, East Carolina University
“You saw them moving from ‘There is no climate change’ to ‘Climate change, but it’s not man-made’ to ‘I am not a scientist’ to ‘Yes, humans affect it, but we don’t know how much,’ ” he said.
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, who won re-election to a third term on Nov. 8, said through a spokesperson during the campaign that he believed humans were contributing to “some changes” in the climate.
That shift was apparently enough to win him more than $600,000 in campaign support from Clearpath Action Inc., a so-called super political action committee committed to swaying Republicans to back a shift to clean energy technologies. The fund, which gets financial backing from Charlotte business magnate Jay Faison, has moderated its initial goal of seeking GOP support to fight climate change.
Christine Avenarius, an anthropologist at East Carolina University, said politicians and their coastal constituents preferred words like “erosion” and “flooding.”
“They try to avoid the word ‘sea-level rise,’ but everybody sees it,” she said. “For short-term economic reasons, because they have to pay the mortgage and want to make sure the tourists keep coming, they wish to not call it climate change.”
Whatever it’s called, Goldston said that if progress were reversed “the carbon that’s already in the air is going to do a lot of damage” and the effects “could become catastrophic.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of David Goldston, chief lobbyist for the Natural Resources Defense Counsel.