Governor Roy Cooper Led North Carolina to Act on Climate Change. Will That Help Him Win a 2nd Term?

A fierce effort to flip a Republican-led legislature, a closely watched Senate race and a tight presidential contest make North Carolina a political battleground.

Oct 5, 2020
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, prior to his election in November 2016. Credit: Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, prior to his election in November 2016. Credit: Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

The wind and waters of Hurricane Mathew, then Florence, devastated large swaths of North Carolina just two years apart, and Gov. Roy Cooper saw something wasn't right.

"When you have two 500-year floods within two years of each other it's pretty certain it's not a 500-year flood," Cooper told reporters in September 2018.

Cooper responded by charting a new climate change course for North Carolina. 

 

With new policies that stand out in the politically conservative South, Cooper has set the state on a path to sharply reduce its emissions of heat-trapping gases and to better gird itself against extreme weather linked by scientists to global warming. The state's more than 7 million voters this fall are deciding whether to reward Cooper—a Democrat who embraces mainstream climate science—with a second term, or to elect a Republican challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who does not.

Both have made their positions clear.

"We all know the climate does change," Forest said in a 2019 Spectrum News interview. "The question is what causes climate to change and can man do anything about it?"

North Carolina Voter Trends

In the same interview, Forest lamented that anyone who argues against climate science becomes "a climate denier and some kind of hater of the world and you want to destroy mankind. That is not the case."

As for Cooper, a month after his flooding observations, and after the remnants of another major Hurricane, Michael, had dumped even more flood waters on North Carolina, he said that with "historic storms lashing our state, we must combat climate change, make our state more resilient and lessen the impact of future natural disasters."

A year later Cooper testified in Washington, D.C., that, "We cannot afford not to take urgent action to fight climate change. It's not too late, but it may soon be."

North Carolina is one of 11 states with governor's races this year. Both the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight say the race leans Democratic.

Election Battles Throughout North Carolina

With millions of campaign dollars flowing into the state for a variety of races, and an electorate roughly composed of a third Democrats, a third Republicans and with a third unaffiliated, North Carolina in 2020 is like the Super Bowl of politics.

For the first time in a decade, the state legislature is a fierce battleground, after a three-judge state court panel forced Republicans who have controlled both legislative chambers since 2010 to redraw voting district maps ruled to be unfair. Taking control of either the House or Senate could give Cooper some political breathing room that he hasn't had these past four years.

North Carolina is a state that could swing the presidential election and it also features a high profile race between the U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who no longer denies climate science and is down in the polls, and Democrat Cal Cunningham. Control of the Senate hangs in the balance.

The race has been thrown into chaos in recent with Tillis' testing positive for Covid19 after attending a White House event, and Cunningham admitting to sharing sexual text messages with a woman who's not his wife, the Associated Press reported on Sunday.

All of this is playing out amid a global pandemic that not only just infected President Trump, but has taken the lives of more than 3,400 North Carolinians. Under Cooper's leadership, which has included mask requirements along with business and school restrictions, North Carolina's performance, as measured by Covid-19 deaths per 100,000 people, has ranked among the better responses to the virus in the country.

There's been some pushback and disagreement over Cooper's handling of the pandemic, including by Forest. But Cooper's "actions have been broadly and widely supported," said North Carolina State University political science professor Steven Greene. 

Overall, Greene described Cooper as a practiced, smart politician who knows how to navigate a closely divided state. Cooper previously served 16 years as state attorney general.

"He's not out there picking battles," Greene said. "His emphasis is consensus on Democratic positions, like expanding health care, a clean environment and investing more in education."

In North Carolina, governors and lieutenant governors seek their offices separately, and Forest, a conservative Christian, won the lieutenant governor position four years ago.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Credit: Andrew Dunn

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Credit: Andrew Dunn

Forest is a former senior partner in an architectural firm whose mother, Sue Myrick, was once the mayor of Charlotte and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He's running a campaign aimed at the Republican Party's political base, including evangelical white Christians for whom climate change remains largely a back burner issue, giving him a narrower appeal. President Trump has endorsed Forest, who has introduced Trump on visits to North Carolina, where Forest has fired up largely mask-less crowds with red political meat.

He tells crowds he "will never allow the mob to destroy our cities," that he wants to "defend" not "defund" the police and that he will "never call your business non-essential," a slam at Cooper for imposing economic restrictions to right the coronavirus.

"He's a hard-core social conservative," Greene said of Forest.  "That is his emphasis. That is his social appeal."

While Cooper's campaign ads call for expanding health insurance to hundreds of thousands of lower income North Carolinians, Forest has ads touting his support for gun rights and opposition to abortion, and touching on other hot button social issues like football players protesting racism during the national anthem. "I believe in standing before the flag and kneeling before God," Forest says in one advertisement.

Cooper has had a sizable fundraising advantage, according to state campaign finance records.

Both Parties In North Carolina Consider Climate Change, but in Different Ways

Climate change may not be the top-tier issue in North Carolina elections, but it's one that voters in both parties there think about, though in different ways, said Paul Shumaker, a top Republican consultant in the state who is not working for the Forest campaign.

Climate builds intensity within the Democratic Party base, which is what he said he has seen with Cooper.

For Republican candidates, framing a response to climate change in terms of economics and "preparing for the future without elevating it to the level that requires us to reshuffle our lifestyles and budgets," Shumaker said. This will broaden its appeal to the state's key group of unaffiliated swing voters who tend to think more like Democrats about climate change, he added.

"Would it be advantageous for (Forest) to build a coalition of voters in the middle? Absolutely," Shumaker said.

Forest isn't doing that, though, so the election offers voters a clear choice, said Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations with the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, whose wife, Sarah, is running for state senate as a Democrat in Wake County. He said the league has spent about $2 million working to elect environmentally friendly state lawmakers, including Cooper, in this election cycle.

"There may never have been a bigger difference between two people running for the office of governor in North Carolina," Crawford said. "One is running around having meetings in a global pandemic, not wearing masks. But Cooper has been a steady leader and he's followed science," with global warming and with Covid-19, Crawford said.

On energy policy, Forest uses a familiar Republican slogan on his campaign website, describing an "all of the above" approach that applies equal emphasis on fossil fuels, renewable sources like wind and solar, and nuclear power.

Even if Forest does not believe humans are causing climate change, he won't be hostile to clean energy, said state Sen. Bob Steinberg, a Republican from northeast North Carolina with a record of backing renewable energy.

"Renewable energy is here to stay," Steinberg said.

North Carolina in 2007 became the first Southeast state to pass a renewable energy portfolio standard, and has since become the nation's second leading state for solar energy capacity while creating 42,000 solar industry jobs. Recent polling provided by Shumaker shows a majority of Republicans and an even greater number of unaffiliated voters in the state favor renewable energy. 

"If these are the issues of concern to voters, then we need to address them in a timely and practical way," Steinberg said. "How we get there and how we become good stewards is a matter of a difference of opinion between good people."

Cooper's Climate Policies Could Have Influence Outside North Carolina

For Cooper and climate change, his major move was Executive Order 80 in 2018. It put North Carolina on a path to achieving a 70 percent reduction in electric utilities' greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and carbon neutrality in the power sector by 2050. It also aims to put  at least 80,000 more electric vehicles on the roads by 2025 and to prioritize efforts to make the state more resilient in the coming decades.

Since then, the Cooper administration has also come out with clean energy, science and risk and resilience reports that identify North Carolina's climate vulnerabilities and offer potential solutions.

"This is a governor who is out there, and he happens to be saying the right things from a climate friendly and clean energy perspective from a tough part of the country to say those things, consequences be damned," said Jennifer Rennicks, a policy director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and a resident of North Carolina.

There are implications beyond North Carolina's borders, said Stephen Smith, the executive director of the alliance, whose political arm has endorsed Cooper. The governor, he said, is helping to consolidate a block of states with progressive climate and clean energy policies extending into the South from Maryland through Virginia and into North Carolina, with the potential to embolden neighboring states.

Also, North Carolina is the headquarters for one of the nation's largest electric utilities—Duke Energy, based in Charlotte. As North Carolina puts political pressure on Duke to move faster toward clean energy, Smith said there could be beneficial spillover effects in other states served by Duke, including South Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.

Duke on Sept. 1 released its latest long-term energy plan, showing options to reach Cooper's goals.

All Duke's pathways phase out coal, but most call for new natural gas plants, frustrating climate hawks who want Cooper to forcefully reject fossil fuels with a moratorium on new gas plants.

"The climate crisis demands that we stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure immediately," Duke University climate scientist Drew Shindell, 40 former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials and leaders of the environmental group NC WARN wrote to Cooper and Duke Energy on Sept. 14.

"He's been a mixed bag," said Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, said of the governor. Cooper has not forcefully fought against natural gas pipeline proposals "and has been under a lot of pressure for allowing a lot of forest destruction for the wood pellet industry," Warren said.

In the name of clean energy, North Carolina is in the center of an expanding wood-to-fuel industry feeding growing markets in Europe and Asia, even though many scientists argue that cutting down trees for bioenergy increases carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries.

"We've got thousands of people contacting (Cooper), to call on him to declare a climate emergency," Warren said. "He hasn't done that."

State Legislative Victories Could Aid Governor's Climate Agenda

Studies and plans are only a start, environmentalists acknowledge, especially when a state legislature unfriendly to the governor controls the flow of money. Cooper's climate plans will likely require spending large sums of money to brace for all that climate change could throw at North Carolina.

"We are in the implementation stage right now," said Crawford, with the conservation voters group. "This is why it is important that Gov. Cooper get a second term so he can finish what he started."

In the meantime, environmentalists are keeping a close eye on state legislative races. Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010, then redrew legislative district maps, resulting in supermajorities in 2014.

This election features new court-ordered maps that aren't perfectly neutral but fairer than they were before, said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which sued to overturn the Republican's gerrymandered districts. "We were never about getting a more Democratic legislature," he said. "We need a better process that takes the politics out of it."

Still, progressives are working to flip one or both of the legislative houses in part to boost the governor's climate agenda.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats are seeking to gain six seats to take the majority, while in the Senate, they need five to pull ahead, said Amy Cox, co-founder of Flip NC, a volunteer group that's been running phone banks and voter canvassing efforts focused on the legislature.

"We can overcome that with a blue wave," she said.

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