It’s been quite some time since North Carolina has been thought of as the outpost of Southern progressivism it once was. But the state’s two-term Democratic governor is working to change that, hoping to solidify the Tar Heel State as an emerging leader in the fight against climate change and environmental injustice.
On Friday, Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order that bolstered a number of North Carolina’s climate change goals while also directing state and local agencies—as well as educational institutions and private businesses—to make environmental justice a central part of their decision-making and planning.
Specifically, Cooper’s order tightened key benchmarks on the state’s path to achieving net-zero emissions by mid-century. The order set a target of reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. That’s up from the previous goal of 40 percent by 2025. It also aims to put 1.25 million zero-emission vehicles on North Carolina roads by 2030, up from the governor’s previous goal of 80,000 by 2025. Additionally, the order directs the state Department of Transportation to draft a “Clean Transportation Plan,” directs state cabinet agencies to designate new officials to lead environmental justice efforts and calls for a statewide greenhouse gas inventory.
“Gov. Cooper’s action Friday on climate is his latest in a series that, like moves from the outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam in Virginia, have stood out in the South,” said James Bruggers, the Southeast reporter at Inside Climate News, where he’s covered Cooper’s surprising ascent as a climate champion in the region.
North Carolina has become particularly vulnerable to impacts of climate change in recent years. Hurricanes Matthew in 2016, Florence in 2018 and Dorian in 2019 battered the state with devastating winds, rain and storm surge, killing dozens of people, destroying homes and businesses and leaving many in the state still recovering from the damage.
Science shows it will only get worse. A 2020 report produced by independent climate scientists based in North Carolina forecasted that the state will see rising temperatures, increased precipitation, disruptive sea-level rise and longer droughts in the decades to come. All of this is particularly troubling in a state with numerous Superfund sites threatened by climate change and proliferating hog and poultry concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that pose increasing air and water pollution problems, particularly in communities of color, as Aman Azhar reported for us this past weekend.
The recent storms propelled Cooper to campaign for re-election on the climate crisis in 2020, a politically risky move in a state with a Republican-controlled legislature that has been hostile to Cooper’s agenda. Polling last year showed that there continues to be a sharp divide between Republicans and Democrats regarding the issue of global warming. Only 10 percent of Republicans believed that climate change was a serious problem, compared to nearly 60 percent for Democrats.
But political experts say that Cooper appears to be appealing to the state’s growing number of independent voters, who align closer to Democrats than Republicans on their views of our warming planet, Bruggers said. That bloc now accounts for roughly a third of North Carolina’s voting public, helping to explain the governor’s re-election in 2020, despite the state voting for Donald Trump by 1 percentage point.
“Cooper ran for re-election last year on a platform that included a clean energy transition, and won in a state that Donald Trump with his fossil fuel agenda also won,” Bruggers said. “Cooper must be figuring his strategy is working and that voters want him to keep pushing for policies that seek to address climate concerns.”
Now consider the contrast between North Carolina and its neighbor to the north, Virginia, another purple Southern state with a Democratic governor who’s progressive on climate, Ralph Northam. The state just elected his successor, Republican Glenn Youngkin, who has already nominated Andrew Wheeler—the coal lobbyist and former EPA administrator under Trump—to become the state’s natural resources director. If Wheeler is confirmed in Virginia and turns the climate clock back the way he did for Trump, Cooper’s new climate plan will become even more noteworthy in North Carolina.
That’s it for Today’s Climate. I’ll be back in your inbox on Friday.
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