Issue III: Environment
How do North Carolinians view climate change?
On June 1, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. will exit the Paris Agreement, a pact with 191 countries to decrease the world’s greenhouse emissions. Trump’s declaration was met with uproar from international leaders, governors and mayors and industry leaders. Trump reasoned the exit would improve the economy by decreasing regulations and bringing back jobs in energy.
According to scientific experts, climate change is a serious issue that has resulted in sea levels rising, global temperature increasing, warming of the oceans, melting ice sheets and extreme weather events.
A Gallup poll released on June 2 showed the concern about global warming is partisan with 66 percent of Democrats, 45 percent of independents and 18 percent of Republicans who are worried “a great deal” about the issue.
North Carolina is home to different landscapes of mountains, plains and beaches. We surveyed about 50 North Carolinians and spoke to three experts to understand if and how the state’s environment is at risk.
North Carolina is home to 1.25 million acres of public land ranging from the mountains to the beach.
According to Jennifer Costanza, a landscape ecologist and professor at N.C. State, North Carolina offers the “most unique and biologically-diverse ecosystems in the world.”
“The Coastal Plain forests and woodlands in North Carolina have very high levels of native plant diversity, and the mountains are home to a large number of amphibian and reptile species,” Costanza said.
“We’re really fortunate to live in a state where we can find unique and interesting species and habitats right in our backyards.”
With her research, Costanza looks at the patterns of change across the state under possible scenarios.
“For land use, I have used that approach to examine what might happen to the landscape if we assume current urbanization rates continue in the future, and I have also examined how bioenergy production might affect the amount of forest or the characteristics of forest ecosystems across North Carolina,” she said.
Climate change and urbanization will intensify the problems facing North Carolina’s forests.
“Pests and pathogens like hemlock woolly adelgid are already posing serious threats to our forests, and are likely to continue to be threats in the future,” she said. “Many of those have the potential to be more serious threats with climate change. Another threat is fire suppression, which has led to changes in the species composition of forests throughout much of the state, leading to more maples and fewer oak trees in forests.”
“And urbanization is a large threat to the amount of forestland in North Carolina and is expected to continue to be a threat in the future.”
She added with her simulation models, cities across the state may grow to be two to three times bigger by 2100, and the Piedmont will struggle with deforestation to keep up with the population growth.
Costanza explained the greatest side effect from climate change on the forests is drought and pest and pathogen outbreaks.
“Probably the most likely threats to forests from climate change, at least over the next 50 years or so, is increased drought and more pest and pathogen outbreaks,” Costanza said. “So, the worst case might be if those threats affected the forest ecosystems that harbor high diversity — like those on the Coastal Plain — or are in managed pine forests that provide forest products that are critical to the state’s economy.”
For urban North Carolina, Costanza said the forest’s health should still be a concern for them from an economic standpoint.
“Healthy forests not only support biodiversity but they also can provide forest products like wood and paper that everyone uses,” she said. “North Carolina has a healthy forest products industry that contributes tens of billions of dollars to the state’s economy each year, and employs thousands of people. So everyone in North Carolina, even city-dwellers, benefits from healthy forests.”
She added cities and forests don’t have to compete, but instead people should be more mindful of what impact growing cities have on nature.
“One thing that would make a difference is if local municipalities and counties were more willing to consider impacts to North Carolina’s forests and other natural habitats when approving new developments,” Costanza said.
“We do need places for people to live, but sprawling new residential or commercial developments have serious effects on forests and the species that use them. Planning and zoning boards can work to emphasize or incentivize higher density development or redevelopment of urban centers, which can have far fewer ecological effects. With smarter urban growth strategies, I think it’s possible to provide places for people to live and contribute to a healthy economy, while minimizing threats to forests and other important ecosystems.”
Ranging from retirees, park rangers and citizens with an interest in the environment, Environmental Educators of NC promotes members across the state to connect and share ideas of how to better educate the public and lawmakers about the environment.
As the General Assembly works through the state budget, Jonathan Marchal, Environmental Educators of NC president, said he and EENC members are encouraging legislators to continue to fund the Office of Environmental Education, especially since the need for environmental education is increasing.
“There have been some staffing cuts and budget cuts that affect those programs and their ability to do outreach, which we have to be pretty creative and do more with less,” Marchal said. “The demand is not going away. The demand is increasing, but the resources are scarcer to be able to deliver all of this programming.”
He said protecting the environment doesn’t have to be about one side or the other.
“You’re either for the economy or you’re for the environment, and now we’re really seeing as green industries are picking up that these things are aligned,” Marchal said. “I think that there’s a way of thinking that we’ll continue to change as long as we’re able to get kids outdoors and give them those experiences that are so critical to developing a close relationship and value of the natural world.”
Developing a relationship with nature is a key factor of whether people think the environment needs protecting.
“You’re not going to protect something unless you feel like it’s important,” he said. “If a child has a chance of getting out in the woods on a regular basis, catch some tadpoles, maybe put one in a jar and bring it back home, make leaf art, take a hike, go fishing, as a child doing those things you’re much more likely to value the environment and natural resources. If you start a conversation with somebody who just doesn’t recognize the value of having these things, then it’s awfully hard to win that argument.”
Providing tools to educate North Carolina citizens about the environment is sometimes a challenge, according to Marchal.
“Our relationship to the invisible can be difficult to understand to convey,” Marchal said.
“I’m a really visual person and learn by doing. If, for instance, you’re talking about something you cannot see, like air, obviously air pollution has a big impact. Sometimes what’s needed is making sure what you’re talking about relates to your audience.”
He said using real word examples often is a way people can apply what they are learning to current events.
“The western part of the state experienced a lot of wildfires not too long ago and air quality was just front and central in everyone’s mind,” he said. “We were worried about going outside or our kids going outside because of all the smoke in the air and the soot. You could smell it no matter where you meant in certain parts of the state. And so I think that since particulars are something you can see in the way that you see the air change.”
Marchal added North Carolina has a depth of various natural resources that are impacted by humans’ relationship with the environment.
“We’re a state that just so rich in natural resources and beauty,” Marchal said. “Much of our state depends on tourism. Getting people to see all these wonderful places and the environment is pretty essential.”
“Nobody is going to go on vacation to hang out at a parking lot. They want to see beautiful mountain views and beaches and forests.”
NC GreenPower, a nonprofit based in Raleigh, is refocusing their efforts to educate North Carolina’s children about clean energy.
In 2015, NC GreenPower launched Solar Schools to install solar panels at schools across the state while providing educational tools about renewable energy. The program was created in hopes of raising awareness of solar energy in North Carolina.
“We felt focusing on education and reaching out to students would make us feel a lot better about what we’re doing,” Katie Lebrato, NC GreenPower marketing communications director, said.
“A donation to the program of just $20 can help provide energy education kits to six kids.”
According to Lebrato, the pilot has three missions: to make a bigger impact in North Carolina, to give donors a better reason to contribute and to make NC GreenPower sustainable. Any K-12 school across the state can apply for the installation of five kilowatt solar PV array — enough energy to power the school office. The schools raise funds and NC GreenPower will match up to $10,000, and through a partnership with State Employees Credit Union, they will also match $10,000 for any awarded school. Sixteen schools have been equipped with solar arrays.
“We want the school and the students to feel like it’s a whole entire learning opportunity for them and the community,” Lebrato said. “That’s something we’re really proud of. That’s what we’ve been really trying to promote over our channels the last few years, because we want that to be the new mission of NC GreenPower, in addition to helping renewable energy grow on a larger scale. We also want to start looking at STEM education and reaching kids at a younger age so they know there’s opportunities in the industry for them to learn.”
Along with the array, NC GreenPower provides a weather station, monitoring equipment and curriculum. The monitoring equipment collects data to be sent to a website students can learn from.
“We just felt that to provide something that’s more local — something that has a pointed, direct impact on our local residents, local economy — providing that link back to education, that has a ripple effect in a school,” Lebrato said.
“If you put a solar array at a school, hundreds of children will go through that school. That array will last for 10 to 15 years. That’s where we saw a bigger impact.”
Lebrato said being conscious of one’s environmental impact can be an out-of-school way to make a positive difference, which can include recycling, carpooling or installing solar panels on residential homes.
“We definitely have a lot of things we encourage people to do, but we think just having them be more mindful of their energy usage is always a fairly easy thing to do.”