Why Big Oil Needs to Pay For The Cost Of Climate Change In NC

By Mike Meno

June 18, 2020

A recent report predicts NC will pay millions addressing climate change while corporations behind the crisis have escaped accountability.

As we all grapple with the intertwining crises of a pandemic, an economic meltdown, racial injustice, and nationwide police violence; few North Carolinians likely noticed a report state officials released earlier this month.

The report is about the impacts of yet another widespread threat to our communities’ health and wellbeing: the climate crisis. 

The 370-page “Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan,” developed by the NC Department of Environmental Quality under an executive order from Governor Roy Cooper, lays out in painful detail what a warming planet means for North Carolina. There will be more severe and frequent hurricanes and floods, increased sea-level rise and extreme heat, heightened risks of droughts and wildfires, and innumerable threats to our state’s economy, infrastructure, and ecosystems. 

The strategies outlined for how North Carolina can reduce our vulnerability to these hazards share an important subtext: Climate change is very, very expensive, and the steps needed to make North Carolina more resilient against it are too. 

Growing cost to NC

Just three major hurricanes in four years (Dorian, Florence, and Matthew) have caused billions of dollars in damage. Flooding, cited as “the most frequent, devastating, and important climate-related hazard to focus upon,” prompted billions in losses to the farming industry alone. The greatest impact of recent climate hazards has been “business interruption,” as climate change disrupts supply chains, transportation systems, and people’s jobs. 

Amid our current economic catastrophe, paying for climate resilience will be more challenging than ever. State Senate leader Phil Berger has said the state could face a nearly 16% budget shortfall of $4 billion. As the News & Observer reported, the costs of floods pose a particular challenge to North Carolina towns with smaller municipal budgets.

Jessica Whitehead, the state’s chief resilience officer, described the biggest obstacle to protecting those communities in three words: “Funding, funding, funding.” 

Improving North Carolina’s ability to combat and prevent the worst of these impacts, through infrastructure updates and more, will conservatively cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. 

North Carolina’s taxpayers, however, should not have to shoulder the economic burden of climate change on our own, and for one important reason: We did not create this mess.

That honor belongs to the corrupt fossil fuel industry, and specifically the largest oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, who knew for decades that burning fossil fuels would have a “potentially catastrophic” impact on the climate, according to one of many internal documents brought to light in recent years by journalists and whistleblowers. 

Big Oil should pay up 

By some estimates, the fossil fuel industry is responsible for nearly two-thirds of all historic greenhouse gas emissions, which Cooper identifies plainly in North Carolina’s report as the “key cause” of climate change. 

Rather than address the problem they knew they created, Big Oil spent decades pushing lies, disinformation, and junk science in order to deceive the public and delay action, according to Harvard researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran. This climate denial campaign hit full stride even as the industry took measures to protect its own assets from rising seas and stronger storms. 

While our cash-strapped communities pay the price for climate change, the multibillion-dollar industry that caused the problem and lied about it has never had to pay a dime.

Governments across the country —from Rhode Island to Colorado to Hawaii —are now taking Big Oil to court to make them pay for the billions of dollars needed to combat the effects of climate change. North Carolina should consider following suit to hold the industry accountable and ensure that our residents aren’t left holding the bill.  

Climate change is costing our state billions. It’s time for Big Oil to pay its fair share. 


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