Op-Ed: How N.C. workers are changing the narrative on climate

Photo: Getty Images

By Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

May 13, 2024

In a small church on the outskirts of Smithfield on a Sunday afternoon, people are comparing light bills. One woman reports that her electrical costs could reach $700 in the summer when she ran the air conditioning; another tells the story of losing power after a hurricane and being unable to afford reconnection fees on her preschool teacher salary.

They aren’t just griping—they are organizing. These local Johnston County residents are behind a local campaign to get their county to apply for newly released federal Inflation Reduction Act funds that could bring working-class families some relief.

For a long time, climate change has felt distant—something scientists study and activists march about. But as we look around our neighborhoods, and our daily lives, we realize the impact of climate change is not nine miles above our head at the ozone layer, but settling in right here at home. In Johnston County, as summers get hotter and the weather more extreme, it’s showing up in the form of high electric bills and the increasing need for home weatherization.

“I just about fell out,” a friend told me after her first day on a road crew. The temperature had been in the 90’s that day and working on top of the hot asphalt had her beat. Her crew usually works nights now, and some farms and construction sites are following suit. Just this spring, a farmworker in Nash County died harvesting sweet potatoes in the extreme heat.

As with most injustice, poor and working-class people are forced to live at the dangerous intersection of bad policy and corporate profits. While the average North Carolinian has little to nothing to do with the wild pace of climate change, we are the most impacted. Decades—now nearly centuries—of unregulated corporate growth that has made good money for a wealthy few has polluted the water, land, and air we all share.

Unfair? Absolutely. Insurmountable? Thankfully, no.

The good news is that because we know what policies and practices created climate change, we can now design laws, policies, and programs that reverse course. Central to this reversal will be ensuring that policy is no longer steered by big corporations and instead by people and communities.

We have started that process. Decades of mass organizing helped pass the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which is now the biggest investment into climate in US history, The IRA is projected to reduce our country’s carbon emissions 40% by 2030 by incentivizing clean energy, electric cars, and electric homes and investing in green technology and infrastructure. This was a people-powered organizing win, and the money from the IRA could make a real change in our North Carolina communities—if we steer it to meet our needs.

Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris came to North Carolina to announce $20 billion in funding from the IRA’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which will be provided directly to community lenders to finance local climate projects. As she said in her speech, it will “empower communities to determine which projects will have the greatest impact in their hometowns.” This is exactly the type of policy shift necessary to move the decision-making away from the culpable (big business) and towards those coping (us).

In Johnston County, local residents are already taking action. They have done their research and drawn up a proposal for their local government to apply for IRA funds that could help make local homes more energy efficient and save homeowners and renters alike money. They are meeting with their elected officials, they are circulating a petition, they are going door to door to tell their neighbors about this campaign, aware that they could put their county on the map as a leader in this new green era.

Many have lauded the IRA’s funding as historic, but so is its monumental transfer of power back to the people. This transfer will allow us to engage around climate change not just in abstract moral terms, but in direct and tangible ways that utilize our local knowledge to build a better future for working people in North Carolina.


  • Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

    Gwen Frisbie-Fulton is the communications director at Down Home North Carolina, which organizes with working-class people in rural communities across the state. This column is syndicated by Beacon Media, please contact [email protected] with feedback or questions.



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