As politicians debate the existence and causes of climate change, some Carolinas communities are preparing to live with it.
A first-ever conference on climate “resilience” that began Monday in Charlotte drew nearly 200 local government planners, state officials, academics and environmental advocates.
The two-day meeting is steering clear of what causes climate change. It focuses instead on how to adapt to the changes that most scientists say are already underway.
“There are thousands of communities across the country that are moving to plan for climate change or manage risks,” said Kathy Jacobs, director of the National Climate Assessment. “The real question is whether they’re using the latest scientific research and not assuming that what happened in the past is what will happen in the future.”
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North Carolina legislators drew national ridicule two years ago by ignoring a science panel’s warning that the state prepare for a 39-inch rise in sea level by 2100. The Outer Banks and northeastern corner of the state are regarded as among the most vulnerable in the nation.
The latest update of the National Climate Assessment, to be released May 6, will depict a grim future for the Southeast.
A draft of the report released last year said rising sea levels, warming temperatures, more frequent extreme heat and increased competition for water will threaten the region.
Average annual temperatures in the Southeast have risen 2 degrees since 1970. The number of days in the Carolina Piedmont with temperatures above 95 degrees will grow by 20 to 30 days a year this century, the draft report projects.
“Think of it as another month of summer,” said Kirstin Dow, a University of South Carolina geographer.
Dow is part of the Carolinas Integrated Sciences & Assessments program, the conference’s organizer. CISA is one of 11 federally funded programs nationwide that aim to make science useful to decision-makers.
Some communities have work underway.
On the coast, Wilmington has begun assessing what rising water and storm surges would do to utilities. Computer models show many pipelines, manholes and pump stations underwater in future years.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utility Department Director Barry Gullet also attended the Charlotte conference on Monday.
UNC Chapel Hill researchers are identifying people and places in coastal Beaufort County that would be most vulnerable to rising water.
Myrtle Beach, S.C., dates its climate adaption strategies to 1989, the year devastating Hurricane Hugo crashed ashore. The resort city now officially recognizes the threat of rising seas and will craft a strategy for dealing with it.
“We have everything from the (climate change) deniers to the whole-hog ‘we’re going to be so resilient’ people,” planner Allison Hardin told the meeting. “You’ve got to reach out to both.”
The stakes are high. A $150 billion chunk of the Carolinas’ economies is sensitive to weather or climate changes.
South Carolina’s Small Business Chamber of Commerce found its members support action on climate change once they realize its potential for hurting key sectors such as tourism, said President Frank Knapp.
“Business owners are not the enemy,” Knapp said, “but they have to understand the economic consequences.”
Sea level rise is among the clearest signals of climate change, experts say. But state climatologists say the Carolinas’ widely variable climate makes it hard to tease out other trends, such as in temperature and precipitation.
North Carolina’s driest city, Asheville, is only 50 miles northeast of its wettest, Lake Toxaway. Columbia, S.C., set a state record of 113 degrees in 2012, but South Carolina failed to break 100 degrees the following year.