Ticking Clock for NC’s Coast as New Reports Detail Climate Change Dangers

A beachfront home in Rodanthe, N.C., collapsed into the Atlantic Ocean on Feb. 9. (National Park Service via AP)

By Michael McElroy

March 10, 2022

This is serious. A UN report says rising seas will inundate a little less than half of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula.  

We’re almost out of time.

A major UN climate report released last month says that if the world does not act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it “will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

The report, which was prepared by 270 scientists from nearly 70 countries, stands as the preeminent scientific accounting of where we are in the fight against climate change, what we need to do, and where we’ll be if we don’t. 

The findings were largely expected. Still, the message is stark.

It is, the UN Secretary General said in a news release, “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership.”

President Biden has committed the US to capping global warming before it reaches 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the metric that climate scientists say would all but guarantee the worst case scenarios. And while other countries have made similar pledges, the work needed to ensure this goal has been slow going.

The IPCC report is the most exhaustive to date, but it only cements what has long been known. Several recent studies have also shown how dire the situation is for a world slow to see the dangers.

The new UN report is the exclamation point. 

A report last month from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, for example, said that, over the next 30 years, sea levels on coastal cities in the US could rise by as much as a foot on average. North Carolina’s coastal counties, this report said, are not prepared to handle the damage and loss of life and livelihood such a rise could bring.

The UN report goes further. In its only mention of North Carolina, it said that rising seas were expected to “inundate 42% of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula” and cause up to $14 billion in property losses. In somewhat of a coming attraction, a beach house collapsed into the sea on the Outer Banks last month, a week before the UN report was released, 

Here are some other key takeaways from these reports and how they affect North Carolina.

It’s not a matter of debate

Human-caused climate change, the report said, has already caused extensive damage and you don’t need a doctorate to see it. There is no serious argument that climate change is real and a threat to global survival and stability. 

The planet has warmed by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial age, and in North America alone, the UN report said, warming can be linked to increased heat waves, heavier rainfall, higher sea levels, stressed water sources and declining crop yields, and increased hurricanes and extreme weather events, just to name a few. 

It’s “like a house with a broken air conditioner,” Corey Davis, the assistant state climatologist at the N.C. State Climate Office, told the Winston Salem Journal.

As we stand now, there are from 3.3 to 3.6 billion people living in areas that “are highly

vulnerable to climate change,” the report, conducted by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said.  

All of these things affect lives and livelihoods, especially for those both across the world and right here in North Carolina who can least afford to do anything about it. 

“Vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change differs substantially among and within regions,” the report says, and even the worst case scenarios will hit the most vulnerable areas the hardest. 

North Carolina’s Possible Future

You don’t have to live on the coast to suffer the consequences of rising seas. As we’ve seen with the pandemic, the ripples of a global calamity wash over everything, and unchecked warming is expected to increase disruptions in food production and supply lines and cause a worldwide refugee crisis. 

North Carolina’s Triangle and Triad regions, for example, are expected to be a primary destination for people fleeing flooded coasts in Florida, Central America and even Wilmington. 

According to the 2019 North Carolina Climate Science Report, “large changes in North Carolina’s climate, much larger than at any time in the state’s history, are very likely by the end of this century.” 

As warming increases, the 2019 North Carolina Climate Science report says the state is also likely to see:

More warm nights and very hot days.

Fewer cold days and nights.

Less snow, even in the western part of the state, but more rain. 

And, the 2019 report said, “It is virtually certain that sea level along the North Carolina coast will also continue to rise, and high tide flooding is projected to become nearly a daily

occurrence by 2100.”

A recent study from researchers at North Carolina State University found that the increased risks of climate flooding has rendered national flood maps outdated.

Of the 30 most at-risk counties in the country, the report said, three are in North Carolina: Dare, Hyde and Tyrrell. 

So what can we do?

While it’s too late to avoid the bad effects, the world can still avoid cataclysm, the report said 

The UN report made several recommendations, including relocating some coastal communities, increasing funding to restore and conserve coastal watersheds, sand dunes and river deltas, and replacing coastal stormwater infrastructure.

Biden’s Build Back Better Act contains $555 billion in similar climate proposals, but the legislation has stalled in Congress, with little support from Republicans, including North Carolina senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. 

But the main action needed, the report and nearly every climate scientist says, is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions. There is no other way.

“If we act now, we have a lot of choices,” Edward R. Carr, an author of the report, told The New York Times, but in 10 years the available options will be a “hell of a lot less.” 

He added: “Thirty years from now, I don’t know.”


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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