Recent Tornado Shows Need for Urgency on Climate Change

Though no one was killed, last week's tornado caused multiple injuries and destroyed several homes, including this one in Dortches, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

By Michael McElroy

July 24, 2023

North Carolina has adopted an aggressive approach, but some industry groups and members of the Republican-led legislature are trying to derail efforts to lower the emissions that lead to extreme weather events. 

The tornado that caused extensive damage in Nash and Edgecombe counties last week was classified as an EF-3, a heck of a system with winds up to 150 mph. Though Central North Carolina is no stranger to tornadoes, this was the earliest in the year such a strong tornado had ever hit the area, weather officials said

It fits an inescapable pattern across the world: The warnings of human caused climate change are no longer about distant calamity.

Heat waves, wildfires, epic rain, flash flooding, stronger hurricanes –  they’re right here, right now.

If the world wants to avoid a future even worse than the present, it’s running out of time. 

North Carolina has adopted an aggressive approach to fighting climate change and mitigating the effects, following several executive orders by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and a big piece of bipartisan legislation that set target goals for reducing the state’s overall carbon emissions.

But some powerful industry groups and members of the Republican-led legislature are trying to slow, undercut or outright derail many state efforts to improve energy standards, increase use of electric vehicles, and push the state toward cleaner energy sources like wind and solar. 

Many of the groups and lawmakers objecting to climate change legislation reject the clear science and warnings of a rapidly warming planet, while saying that the measures that could avoid the worst case scenarios are too expensive.

Without an aggressive global response, the climate emergencies the world is already seeing out its windows will get much worse.

Here’s a brief look at some of the state’s climate initiatives and the efforts to undermine them. 

Energy Standards

As first reported by WFAE, Charlotte’s NPR affiliate, the North Carolina Home Builders’ Association wrote significant pieces of a new bill this year that would derail previous legislation establishing higher energy-efficiency in new buildings and homes. The new standards, decided upon by an appointed Building Code Council, would save homeowners money on energy in the long run and lower individual carbon footprints. But builders balked, saying the costs of implementing these changes would make new homes too expensive for buyers. (The market itself, however, and the lack of affordable housing already has North Carolina’s real estate market far beyond reach for many residents.)

The Republican-controlled legislature passed the builders’ bill, but Cooper vetoed it, setting up an override vote in the coming weeks. 

“This bill stops important work to make home construction safer from disaster and more energy efficient, and ultimately will cost homeowners and renters more money,” Cooper wrote in his veto of the bill.

The bill, Cooper said, would also cause the state’s building code standards to lag behind federal requirements, making it more difficult to qualify for FEMA funds after an emergency like last week’s tornado. 

And it was unconstitutional, he added. 

“Not only does the bill wipe out years of work to make homes safer and more affordable,” Cooper wrote, “it also violates the Constitution by rigging the ways rules are made.”

The veto override vote is scheduled for August 7. 

Carbon Emissions, Wind Power and Electric Vehicles

As important as energy efficiency may be, however, it won’t mean much without a significant global break from the current carbon emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels – the greatest contributor to climate change.

The General Assembly passed a bipartisan bill in 2021 that put North Carolina on track to meet many of Cooper’s climate goals, namely to reduce carbon emissions from the state’s energy industry by 70% by 2030. 

The state has also moved to increase the number of wind farms off the coast in order to boost its clean energy infrastructure. Wind power does not require any fossil fuel when it’s up and running, but building the turbines does have some initial carbon emissions. Studies show, however, that when taking everything into account, wind power’s carbon footprint is more than 98% smaller than those of coal and natural gas facilities. 

Cooper also issued an executive order last year requiring car manufacturers to significantly increase the number of electric or zero-emission vehicles it sells in the state.

Vehicle emissions are one of the biggest problems in the fight against climate change, and a move toward an electric-based transportation system is vital for mitigating the damages of climate change.

Republicans have targeted each of these moves, however, pushing several bills through various points in the process.

The budget proposed by the Republican Senate, for example, blocks the EV standards, and Senate Bill 697, which has not yet gotten a final vote in the full chamber, prohibits any new wind farms. 


  • 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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