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Ignoring Climate Change Can Be Deadly: State Edition

Climate Justice

During the U.S. presidential race, much ink has been spilled on how important the election is. But one of the most important issues of all – climate change – has made little appearance in the election discourse, even though it is one of many issues on which the candidates have sharp divisions.

But those divisions are not just important at the federal level. Climate change and environmental risk have also been politically divisive at the state level. Many state governments have made decisions about easing, ignoring, or repealing environmental and climate laws, and these decisions could literally be killing people.

We are all familiar with the Flint drinking water crisis of the last year, where many people, including vulnerable children, have been harmed by lead exposure brought about by budget decisions about the water supply, which failed to account for potential environmental impacts. Other states, including Texas, have attempted to roll back enforcement on air toxics.

Here in North Carolina where I live and teach, ignoring climate change science and law may have proven deadly. Twenty-eight fatalities in the state have been attributed to Hurricane Matthew, and the press and leadership describe this harm as tragically caused by a natural disaster. But like Katrina before it, decisions made several years earlier also share responsibility.

In 2010, North Carolina enacted Session Law 728, which required all major state agencies to review their planning and regulatory programs to determine if they considered the impacts of climate change. If not, the agencies were supposed to recommend changes so that this planning and consideration could occur. Though this law did not provide any additional funding, it was far-reaching among states (and the federal government) in bringing climate change to the fore as a planning and regulatory priority. However, since a transition in the state legislative and executive branches in 2011, this law has sat idle.

One of the agencies the law charged to examine climate change impacts was the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety, which handles North Carolina’s emergency management responses. While I have no doubt that the North Carolina emergency management agency did the best job it could do given what information it had at the time Hurricane Matthew was threatening the state, had the agency been able to plan with climate change in mind during the previous five years, much more could have been understood, perhaps saving lives and property. 

The United States has seen unprecedented flooding along rivers and bayous multiple times in the last six years – in Iowa; Nashville; Vermont; Maryland; Columbia, South Carolina; Houston; Baton Rouge; and now eastern North Carolina. In all of these cases, rainfall at levels never previously seen caused more intense flooding in new locations. While no one weather event can be specifically tied to climate change, eight record-breaking rainfalls with attendant record-breaking floods is most certainly connected to the changing climate.

What does that mean for an emergency management agency that is planning around climate change? It means that your state is going to see increasingly intense rainfall events and unprecedented flooding along rivers. If a major weather system could cause such a rain event, people and property evacuations cannot be limited to the coast, but instead should be ordered for areas where other flood surges could occur. At this point in time, all states should be re-examining the implications of extreme rain events on the river basins and settlements in their state, not ignoring climate science.

The climate is changing, and people are being threatened and hurt by environmental harms. When addressing these challenges, it is important to remember the roles that government plays in protecting us all from these hazards – and that state governments are an important piece of the puzzle. It could literally save your life.

Climate Justice

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