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U.S. Climate Assessment finds progress and inequity in Southeast

The Neuse River inundated this hog farm in Goldsboro, in Wayne County, N.C., after Hurricane Florence.
Rick Dove
Waterkeeper Alliance
The Neuse River inundated this hog farm in Goldsboro, in Wayne County, N.C., after Hurricane Florence.

U.S. carbon emissions are falling and efforts to adapt are expanding. But it's not enough to avoid the intensifying impacts of climate change such as sea level rise and extreme weather, according to a new federal climate report card out Tuesday.

In the Southeast, population growth and development are major contributors to changes that have greater economic and health impacts on smaller and more rural communities and people of color.

It's the fifth National Climate Assessment, required by Congress every four years. Think of it as a climate change progress report. It gives national, state and local officials the data they need to set policies for reducing carbon emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change.

North Carolina's state climatologist, Kathie Dello, helped write the chapter on the Southeast, where every state except Mississippi is growing rapidly.

"What that means is we're exposing more people to our climate risks. So it's hotter and wetter, and we're seeing more flooding here in the Southeast," Dello said. "But we're also pushing people out of urban areas into suburbs and exurban areas and really seeing some unchecked growth. So a lot of our housing even in some of the lower climate scenarios is in flood-prone areas."

The report highlights Princeville, a historically Black community that was built after the Civil War in a low-lying area along the Tar River in eastern North Carolina.

"It's a town that's experienced severe flooding after hurricanes. And they've introduced some really proactive adaptation measures, including buyouts, razing houses and also preserving spaces that are meaningful to them," she said.

But there's still much to be done there, and it's not clear how successful those efforts will be in the next big storm, according to the report.

Another section features the Gullah-Geechee National Heritage Corridor, which stretches from North Carolina to Florida. The Gullah-Geechee people, descended from enslaved people, face sea level rise and storms. The report notes that the lack of clear title to land, a problem known as heirs' property, makes it hard for people in these areas to access federal disaster aid. So the Federal Emergency Management Agency worked with the corridor to update policies before the 2022 hurricane season to remove those barriers.

Areas making the most progress on climate change tend to be wealthier coastal communities and cities. That leaves rural and underserved areas at greater risk, according to the report. Dello said local officials may not have the capacity to develop climate plans or apply for financial assistance for climate adaptation.

"A lot of our communities in North Carolina are sharing staff across multiple departments. There might be an emergency manager that serves a half-time position that is covering absolutely everything, not just climate. … People are juggling a lot and we really need to help communities build that capacity to implement some of these solutions," she said.

The report is full of detail about climate projects, many of them getting federal infrastructure and climate dollars. But there are other worrisome trends in the Southeast, said Alys Campaigne of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which commented on a draft of the report.

"We're also seeing some great projects being stood up through the landmark climate law, but we are clearly not moving fast enough. While we're seeing trends moving in the right direction, our utilities are also poised to double down on dirty methane gas," Campaigne said.

Electric companies including the Tennessee Valley Authority and Duke Energy, for example, are proposing big new fossil fuel investments — namely dozens of new gas-fired power plants.

Besides the report, federal officials are posting maps and graphics, podcasts and an interactive atlas to help people understand the latest U.S. climate data.

Read more at https://nca2023.globalchange.gov/

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David Boraks is a veteran journalist who covers climate change for WFAE. See more at www.wfae.org/climate-news. He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.