Is NC ready for the new disaster economy?

Flood waters wash over Vernon Avenue in Kinston in October 2016, after Hurricane Matthew forced the Neuse River over its banks.
Flood waters wash over Vernon Avenue in Kinston in October 2016, after Hurricane Matthew forced the Neuse River over its banks. cseward@newsobserver.com

Perhaps 2018 will become the year we accepted the “new abnormal.” That’s the term California’s governor used to describe the ferocious wildfires that have become commonplace, but it can equally describe the devastating hurricanes that hit the Carolinas. Forty-two North Carolinians died as a result of Hurricane Florence, the second so-called 500-year storm in less than two years. Eight trillion gallons of rain fell here, and there was $17 billion of damage to homes, businesses, and agriculture.

If scientists are right, there will be much more to come. The most recent national climate assessment projects that, if emission levels continue, the Southeast will be particularly hard hit by extreme weather, and the combination of rising sea levels and storm surges could cost the region up to $60 billion annually by 2050. Heat waves in Raleigh and eastern North Carolina will be especially bad, and over half a billion labor hours could be lost from heat-related impacts. In short, will will have the economy of the “new abnormal.”

Extreme weather will create economic strains, but it will also create new opportunities. New jobs and businesses will be created to make infrastructure more resilient to storms, and new technologies will be developed to mitigate the effects of climate change. The only question is whether North Carolina will be positioned to take maximum advantage of the new opportunities.

Although the private sector will create those jobs, government has a role in creating the demand. For example, new construction will be more resilient to future disasters in part because the federal government requires recipients of billions of dollars of disaster aid to meet new standards. Government policies to reduce the effects of climate change encourage the creation of businesses that will grow as worsening weather increases awareness of the need for better sources of energy. North Carolina government must not only ensure our rebuilding efforts are sound, but also encourage new jobs and businesses to be located here.

This fall Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order that requires government agencies to plan for climate change, and I am encouraged that we may be on the right track. Executive Order 80 sets the course for North Carolina to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the number of zero-emission cars, but it also seeks to foster the development of new jobs for the disaster economy.

The order directs the Department of Environmental Quality to develop plans for clean energy development and a resilient electric grid, and it tells the Department of Transportation to plan to increase the number of zero-emission vehicles. The Department of Commerce is charged with expanding clean energy and transportation business in the state, as well as making sure North Carolinians have the skills for the new jobs.

Of course, the success of the effort will be in its implementation, including the degree of private sector involvement. But it is encouraging that someone is contemplating the new opportunities which will be created by climate risk and developing a plan to bring them to North Carolina.

There will likely be naysayers who continue to say climate change is fake news, but they miss the point. Bloomberg projects U.S. demand for electric vehicles will increase from 194,000 this year to two million in 2025, and wind and solar energy will provide almost 50 percent of global demand in 30 years. We need to help North Carolina businesses to seize the opportunity. Because a disaster is a terrible thing to waste.

Ervin is a former award winning journalist for 60 Minutes and Nightline as well as a policy and budget analyst. Email: dana_ervin@fastmail.net