Anyone who's been lucky enough to visit North Carolina's Outer Banks knows what an extraordinary place they are. A delicate necklace of barrier islands adorning the coastline, they provide a resting place for migratory birds, livelihood for fishermen and a getaway for a growing number of beach lovers.
But unless North Carolinians take action soon to curb global warming pollution, we face the possibility of having these gems stolen from us by seas that scientists warn could rise as much as 43 inches by 2100.
The natural riches we stand to lose from a warming planet are documented in a new short film being distributed by the nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Titled Treasured Places: The Outer Banks in Peril, the eight-minute movie details the risks of inaction on global warming.
"Instead of just burying people with a lot of factual information, we wanted to give them a sense of emotional connectedness to these places so they understand what's at stake," says SACE Executive Director Stephen Smith.
The film features interviews with Outer Banks residents, including Michael Halminski, a nature photographer who lives on Hatteras Island, and commercial fisherman I.D. Midgett.
"If we get a rise in water level," Midgett tells the camera in his Outer Banks brogue, "we're sunk."
The film also offers commentary from Smith as well as William Schlesinger, a climate change expert who will soon leave his post as director of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment to head the New York-based Institute of Ecosystem Studies.
"Treasured Places" was produced by Benjamin von Cramon, a Georgia-based independent filmmaker who studied his craft at UNC-Chapel Hill.
SACE is distributing a similar movie documenting global warming's impact on Florida's Everglades and Keys, and it plans to complete another next year on South Carolina's coast.
Smith hopes the Outer Banks film will inspire people to become engaged in the important policy debates about North Carolina's energy future in which SACE is involved. The organization is among several environmental groups opposing Duke Energy's plans to build a new coal-fired unit at its Cliffside plant in Western North Carolina's Rutherford County. (See "Duke Energy pays lip service to efficiency," Oct. 4, 2006, www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A38220.)
"Building new coal-fired power plants is a direct threat to the Outer Banks—no ifs, ands or buts about it," Smith says.
With Schlesinger, Smith is also a member of the N.C. Global Warming Commission. Created by the legislature in 2005, the group expects to release an interim report by February. Smith hopes Treasured Places will encourage citizens to pay attention to the commission's work and to urge their elected officials to heed its advice on curbing greenhouse gas pollution.
This year will be an especially critical one for climate policy at both the state and federal level. In the General Assembly session that opens this month, lawmakers are expected to consider legislation addressing renewable energy requirements for utilities, biofuels production and energy efficiency.
And in Washington, key committees that in the Republican-controlled Congress have been led by global warming deniers will fall under the control of leaders more inclined to take constructive action.
But how much elected officials accomplish depends on how engaged citizens are. Our involvement in this issue—or lack thereof—will do much to determine the well-being of North Carolina's coast for generations to come. And that's where SACE's film comes in.
"The Outer Banks isn't going to be able to survive our indifference or ignorance," says Smith.