If you visit a North Carolina beach this summer, chances are you'll witness firsthand the effects of global climate change brought on by greenhouse gas pollution. Nowhere is planetary warming more obvious than the coast. As the average global temperature has climbed about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century, sea level has risen nearly a foot due to glaciers melting and warm water expanding. And a period of intensifying Atlantic storms that began a decade ago has repeatedly slammed the swelling seas into the coastline, speeding up erosion of the fragile and ever-shifting Outer Banks and putting lives and property at risk.
Humans are trying desperately to keep ahead of the rising waters. In 1999, the National Park Service moved Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, a beloved state landmark, 1,000 yards away from the encroaching ocean. Three years ago, Mason Inlet at Wrightsville Beach near Wilmington was relocated 2,500 feet northward to keep a vacation resort from toppling into the sea. And state and local taxpayers spend millions of dollars each year on controversial beach restoration projects up and down the coast.
An especially dramatic harbinger of what might lie ahead for North Carolina came in September 2003 when Hurricane Isabel, a relatively mild Category 2 storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale of 1 to 5, carved a new inlet on Hatteras Island. Indeed, if sea level continues to rise at current rates and storm activity remains intense, the state's barrier island chain will break up completely in a few decades, says coastal geologist Stanley Riggs of East Carolina University, who has spent the last 40 years studying the state's shifting sands. By drilling holes up and down the coast, Riggs has come to understand what North Carolina's beaches looked like 1,000 years ago, when sea level was rising at rates similar to what the computers are predicting for the coming century--and what's in store for us in the not-so-distant future. Instead of a long strand of linked sand reefs, the Outer Banks will become small, isolated islands separated by bays. Hatteras Island will be completely under water except for parts of Buxton. Most of Ocracoke Island will be inundated, and there will be new inlets near Nags Head, Duck and Corolla. Pamlico Sound will turn into Pamlico Bay, and large swaths of mainland Dare and Hyde counties will disappear into the sea. ("State of the Coast Report," N.C. Coastal Federation, 2004; online at www.nccoast.org.
"You're looking at one generation," Riggs says. "Your kids will see this collapse. If you're not too old, you'll see it yourself."
While the changes taking place on North Carolina's coast are partly natural, they are also partly manmade, caused by sea-level rise exacerbated by greenhouse gas pollution. And unfortunately, because science still does not fully understand what sparks sudden and dramatic shifts in climate, it does not know at what point humans could cause such catastrophic changes, which could bring devastating consequences felt far beyond the coast.
"There's no question that humans are playing a role--they've become as big a force as any natural force," Riggs says. "But at what point do we trigger these points of no return? We don't know that. And the problem is, once we get to one of those points, it will be too late."
Unless something's done soon to curb emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, North Carolina's climatic woes will only get worse. Annual temperatures across the Southeast are expected to rise anywhere from 4.1 to 10 degrees F over the next 100 years. ("Climate Change Impacts on the United States," National Assessment Synthesis Team, U.S. Global Change Research Program, Cambridge University Press, 2001; online at www.usgcrp.gov/usgcrp/nacc.) Meanwhile, global sea level is predicted to rise by at least 14 inches--and as much as three feet if greenhouse gas pollution continues unchecked. ("Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptations and Vulnerability," Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2001; online at www.ipcc.ch.) Besides putting human lives and property at risk, rising seas also disrupt other creatures' habitats. Of the 70 endangered or threatened species in the Southeast, more than 27 percent live within three miles of mean sea level. ("Understanding Climate Change for North Carolina," Environmental Defense, 2003; online at www.environmentaldefense.org/go/Ncclimate.) And warming's effects won't be limited to the coast, as higher temperatures will boost death rates from heat stroke across the state, increase the numbers of disease-carrying insects, and contribute to poor air quality by intensifying ground-level ozone formation. ("Death by Degrees: The Health Effects of Climate Change in North Carolina," Physicians for Social Responsibility, 1998; online at www.psr.org.)
But amid the gloomy climate predictions shines a ray of hope. Because the Bush administration has refused to take regulatory action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the responsibility has fallen to the states--and in recent years a movement to stabilize the climate through more environmentally sustainable policies has gained momentum in North Carolina. Involving scientists, environmental organizations and the faith community, the movement succeeded this year in getting groundbreaking global warming legislation introduced at the General Assembly. Senate Bill 1134 and House Bill 1191 would establish a commission on global climate change that would bring together state leaders, scientists, businesses and environmentalists to study global warming issues, develop a voluntary global warming pollutant reduction goal and ready the state to compete in the emerging carbon marketplace.
While some might question taking state action to address a global problem, sustainability advocates point out that's how environmental regulation usually develops. "No significant environmental regulation has ever just happened at the federal level," says Stephen Smith, executive director of the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), which has staff in Asheville and Raleigh. "States are laboratories for public policy innovation." For example, nine Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states are already developing their own cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide emissions, while Washington, Oregon and California are crafting a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. ("Learning From State Action on Climate Change," Pew Center on Global Climate Change, December 2004; online at www.pewclimate.org.
However, North Carolina's global warming legislation faces opposition from utility companies and other politically powerful corporate interests. It remains to be seen whether sustainability advocates can build the public support necessary to overcome that resistance--and do so in time to make a difference. Because at some point, it will be too late for humans to halt climate chaos, scientists warn.
"If we don't limit carbon dioxide concentrations in the next 15 to 20 years, we're destined to suffer very unpleasant consequences," says William Schlesinger, dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and a trustee for the North Carolina office of Environmental Defense (ED). "The longer we do nothing, the worse the problem will be."
Science and the skeptics
Today the vast majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and poses a serious threat to humans and the natural environment. They also concur that the current warming trend is caused largely by human activities that release heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, particularly the burning of fossil fuels in power plants and automobiles. The average atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has reached more than 377 parts per million, an increase of 35 percent since the industrial era began. (Information from Janet Sawin, senior researcher with the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. "Vital Signs 2005," the Institute's latest report addressing climate change and other environmental problems, is scheduled for release May 12 and will be available from www.worldwatch.org.) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Geophysical Union and the Environmental Protection Agency have all confirmed the real and serious nature of manmade climate change.
"As a scientist, I'm pretty conservative--I like seeing hard evidence," says Associate State Climatologist Ryan Boyles of the State Climate Office of North Carolina. "Ten, 15 years ago, I wasn't so convinced about global climate change. But as the evidence has mounted, I've come around. It's pretty hard to deny."
Among the general public, however, uncertainty still lingers about whether climate change is really a problem and what's causing it. The confusion is due largely to a public relations campaign funded in part by petroleum and coal interests. The New York Times broke the story two years ago when it reported that ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company, "has increased donations to Washington-based policy groups that, like Exxon itself, question the human role in global warming and argue that proposed government policies to limit carbon dioxide emissions associated with global warming are too heavy handed." ("Exxon Backs Groups That Question Global Warming," Jennifer Lee, New York Times, May 28, 2003.)
In North Carolina, the most publicly outspoken proponent of climate change skepticism has been the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh think tank that promotes a pro-business, anti-regulatory agenda. As state efforts to address climate change have intensified over the past several years, the foundation has kept up a litany of doubt in various columns and articles. Last month, for example, after the climate change legislation was introduced at the legislature, Locke released a public policy statement titled "Global Warming Policy: NC Should Do Nothing." (www.johnlocke.org/spotlights/20050412100.html) Charging that the science remains "unsettled," the paper argues that a state greenhouse gas reduction policy would bring only costs and no benefits to North Carolina.
While Locke does not take money directly from Exxon, it does receive funding from other fossil fuel interests and from organizations that are themselves funded by ExxonMobil. But it does not openly disclose that fact.
Until last year, Locke was classified as a private foundation under Internal Revenue Service rules. (It has since changed its status to a public charity, which has less rigorous public disclosure requirements.) A private foundation must annually file Form 990-PF, Return of Private Foundation, and that form's Schedule B list of donors is supposed to be open for public inspection, according to IRS 990-PF filing instructions. (www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/i990pf.pdf) But when the Independent requested a copy of Locke's IRS paperwork, President John Hood refused to disclose Schedule B, saying it was his understanding disclosure wasn't required.
"We don't ever give that out," Hood says. "That's just not something we ever do."
Hood also told the Independent his organization did not receive money from utilities or other fossil fuel concerns in recent years. However, complete returns for the past three years obtained through the New York-based Foundation Center show Locke received at least $81,500 from organizations with fossil fuel ties during that period. (http://fdncenter.org)
In fiscal year 2003, the most recent year for which a return was publicly available, Locke's second-largest contributor was the Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation. One of the Koch Family funds, (www.mediatransparency.org/funders/koch_family_foundations.htm) the foundation is operated by David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, the largest privately held oil conglomerate in the United States and a leading contributor among gas and oil companies in the 2004 federal election cycle, according to a recent report by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity (CPI). (www.publicintegrity.org/oil/report.aspx?aid=347) "Although it is both a top campaign contributor and spends millions on direct lobbying, Koch's chief political influence tool is a web of interconnected, right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups funded by foundations controlled and supported by the two Koch brothers," the CPI report states.
In 2001, the John Locke Foundation received $6,500 from the Center for Energy and Economic Development (CEED), an Amarillo, Texas-based nonprofit whose Web site says it is "dedicated to protecting the viability of coal-based electricity." (www.ceednet.org/ceed/index.cfm?cid=7504) Locke has also taken money from groups funded by ExxonMobil, according to www.exxonsecrets.org, a database sponsored by Greenpeace USA. In 2002, for example, Locke got $5,000 from The DCI Group of Phoenix, a Republican lobbying firm whose Tech Central Station Web site is sponsored by ExxonMobil, and in 2001 it received $10,000 from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation (AERF) of Fairfax, Va., which in turn has received more than $500,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998.
In addition, Locke board member and chief patron Art Pope has served on the boards of AERF and Citizens for a Sound Economy, a Washington-based organization founded by the Kochs that has received more than $380,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998, according to www.exxonsecrets.org. Pope is also president of the John William Pope Foundation, which contributed $3.9 million to Locke from 2001 through 2003.
Locke's ties to the fossil fuel industry's campaign of global warming skepticism are also apparent in the sourcing for its climate change material, which relies heavily on a handful of experts and organizations with fossil fuel connections. In the organization's recent paper on the global warming legislation, for example, sources used to challenge mainstream science on climate change include material published by the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute, which has received at least $175,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998; Richard Lindzen, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology meteorologist who has acknowledged charging coal and oil interests $2,500 a day for his consulting fees; and University of Virginia climatologist Patrick Michaels, who has received at least $115,000 from coal and oil interests in recent years, according to www.exxonsecrets.org. Michaels also currently serves as a consultant for CEED.
For his part, Hood dismisses the idea that taking fossil fuel industry money should raise eyebrows about an organization's or a researcher's ideas on global warming.
"I don't necessarily see interest groups that are personally or financially involved in the global warming debate as being out of bounds," Hood says. "That's fundamentally contrary to the scientific process. You ought to be evaluating ideas on the basis of their validity--not on the basis of who's bringing them to the table."
The money of power
Unfortunately, Hood's vision of a public policy debate where all voices are listened to equally does not always describe the reality of the state policymaking process, where money amplifies some voices above others. And few special interests are listened to as closely as the state's investor-owned utilities--Duke Energy of Charlotte, Progress Energy of Raleigh and Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Resources, which supplies power to northeastern North Carolina. Utilities are responsible for 42 percent of the state's greenhouse gas emissions, and in legislative negotiations the companies have expressed reservations about the global warming bills under consideration at the General Assembly--and that could spell trouble for the legislation.
"All combined, Duke Energy, Progress Energy, and Dominion Resources invested more than $29 million in the political process to promote their agenda in the past four years--including spending for lobbyists, contributions to North Carolina and federal candidates and parties, and donations to soft-money committees," according to "The Utility of Giving," a report released last month by Democracy North Carolina, a Carrboro-based campaign finance watchdog group. (www.democracy-nc.org)
Progress and Duke Energy sponsor two of the biggest corporate political action committees in the state, the report found. From 2001 through 2004, Duke's PAC donated $488,750 to state-level politics, Progress gave $300,250 and Dominion contributed $84,650. In addition to the $873,000 donated by Duke, Progress and Dominion PACs to state candidates and parties, company executives gave more than $150,000 during the same four-year period, pushing the total for all their state political contributions beyond $1 million.
Duke, Progress and Dominion also retain a dozen in-house and contract lobbyists, including Zeb Alley and Don Beason, who consistently rank as the first and second most influential lobbyists in the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research's annual survey. (www.nccppr.org) And while the three utilities reported paying $1 million to state lobbyists from 2001 through 2004, by taking advantage of the "goodwill lobbying" loophole in North Carolina law, they did not have to disclose what they spent to wine, dine and otherwise woo state legislators.
The utility companies wield their influence in other ways, as well. "The private electric utilities serving North Carolina are among the state's largest employers, landowners, taxpayers, and charitable donors," according to Democracy North Carolina. "They gain influence in shaping policy by their sheer size, economic muscle, and the goodwill accumulated by providing leaders and money for civic activities, from school construction bond drives to United Way campaigns."
And the utilities are not alone in fighting state regulation of greenhouse gas pollution. Also opposing the global warming bills are other heavyweight corporate interests including N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry, the Manufacturers and Chemical Industry Council of North Carolina and the N.C. Agribusiness Council, which together maintain a fleet of lobbyists in Raleigh. Along with the utilities, those groups last month succeeded in getting language setting a carbon dioxide limit of 500 parts per million stripped out of the Senate global warming bill.
Corporate interests don't limit their lobbying to the legislature, either. The N.C. Division of Air Quality last month held a public meeting to discuss a report to be released in September on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the presentation portion of the meeting was dominated by Michaels and another consultant for CEED, who made the case that the state should do nothing--and who disclosed their CEED ties only after questioning from other attendees.
Nevertheless, state Rep. Joe Hackney remains optimistic about the global warming bill's chances for passage. An Orange County Democrat who is the primary sponsor of the legislation in the House, Hackney last session sponsored a measure to establish a voluntary greenhouse gas registry that died in committee amid corporate opposition. But he says there's been a "gradual acceptance process" at the legislature that climate change is a real problem for North Carolina that requires state action.
"We're going to continue to work on this over the years," says Hackney, who encourages citizens to send their representatives thoughtful e-mails on the issue. (For lawmakers' contact information, visit www.ncga.state.nc.us.) "It's one of those things where we will gradually make progress. We'll keep at it until we do." Beyond politics
The sustainability movement in North Carolina is not limiting its efforts to the halls of government, however. It's also taking its message on climate change to corporate boardrooms and religious congregations--not exactly places traditionally associated with cutting-edge environmentalism.
On the corporate front, U.S. institutional investors last month called on the nation's 50 largest investor-owned greenhouse gas emitters in the electric power industry to report within a year how future greenhouse gas limits will affect their finances and what steps they're taking to improve their position. The investors cited a report on financial risks climate change presents to power companies prepared by Ceres, a coalition of leading U.S. investment funds, environmental organizations and other public-interest groups pressing for a more environmentally sustainable economy. (www.ceres.org) Among the organizations participating in Ceres are Environmental Defense and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
"We think there is significant shareholder risk and even the potential for board member liability," says SACE's Smith. "We're in the same place in the debate on climate change that we were 30 years ago in the debate on smoking. The utilities are pushing a product that has negative health and environmental consequences, and they're not educating consumers about those impacts."
Progress Energy has pledged to complete a risk analysis on potential mandatory emissions constraints by March 31, 2006. Atlanta-based Southern Co., FirstEnergy of Akron, Ohio, and DTE Energy of Detroit are also preparing reports, while Ohio's Cinergy Corp. and American Electric Power Co. and Dallas-based TXU Corp. have already completed theirs.
"Adoption of the Kyoto Protocol adds even greater urgency to these shareholder resolutions," says Ceres President Mindy Lubber, referring to the international global warming treaty that took effect earlier this year without participation by the United States, the world's biggest greenhouse gas polluter. "There's a rising tide of investor concern because carbon limits are taking effect around the world."
That fact has clearly captured the attention of U.S. corporations. Duke Energy Chairman and CEO Paul Anderson sent shockwaves through the business community last month when in a breakfast speech to Charlotte civic leaders he acknowledged that the burning of fossil fuels was driving climate change and called for an across-the-board U.S. tax on carbon emissions to circumvent state-by-state regulation. Anderson's speech came a week after he mailed a letter to shareholders in which he pledged to be proactive in shaping national policy on climate change.
Sustainability advocates say they're waiting to see how Anderson's pledge will translate into action, since neither Duke nor any of the other North Carolina utilities have supported the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act; the leading federal proposal addressing climate change, it would create a national greenhouse gas cap-and-trade system. (Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) previously voted against McCain-Lieberman. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) has not yet had a chance to vote on the measure, but he has not been a strong environmental advocate, earning only a 7 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters during his 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.)
Meanwhile, the North Carolina faith community is becoming more deeply involved in the climate change issue as well. In May 2000, Sister Evelyn Mattern of the N.C. Council of Churches convened the first meeting of the N.C. Interfaith Campaign on Global Climate Change--now called Climate Connection--at St. Matthews United Methodist Church in Greensboro. The meeting was a local response to the National Council of Churches' initiative to raise awareness of global warming in faith communities and make connections between the spiritual imperative of creation stewardship and the threats posed by climate change.
Since then, Climate Connection has held conferences and training events around the state designed to engage religious congregations in global warming issues. It advocated for the creation of NC GreenPower, an independent nonprofit established to improve North Carolina's environment through voluntary contributions toward renewable energy. (For more information, visit www.ncgreenpower.org.) It recently sent letters to newly elected state lawmakers urging them to make climate change a priority. And last month it held a training conference for congregational leaders at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Raleigh, offering workshops on sustainable energy sources and energy management for religious buildings.
Since Mattern's untimely death from lung cancer in 2003, Alice Loyd has taken over the leadership of the group. A longtime gardener and environmental activist, Loyd came to organized religion only recently and now belongs to Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. Like many in the sustainability movement, she has come to believe that religious communities' involvement in climate change represents a profound hope for the future, as it has the potential to fundamentally transform the way people think about the issue--to turn climate change from a political hot potato into a universal moral concern like hunger.
"It transcends politics," says Loyd. "Caring for creation is not a special interest."
Sue Sturgis is a freelance reporter and former Independent staff writer who lives in Raleigh. She publishes Raleigh Eco News, a local environmental news Web log online at www.raleigheconews.com.