Climate change will have profound impact in North Carolina – Statesville Record & Landmark
The Earth is warming at an accelerated pace.
A recent study shows that the potential impact of persistent rising temperatures is a serious concern for a majority of people living in Iredell County.
But there’s an apparent disconnect between those residents’ anxiety over the effects of climate change and their exposure to news coverage related to the topic, according to 2020 data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason Center for Climate Change.
Their study found that 56% of residents in Iredell County were “worried about global warming.” But they also concluded that just 22% of county residents “hear about global warming in the media at least once a week.”
I hope to play small a role in changing that in my new role as climate and environment reporter. The newly created position, funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, will be based at the Winston-Salem Journal, but I will be covering stories throughout the Triad and northwest North Carolina.
Diogo Freire, 1Earth Fund’s managing director, explained his organization’s involvement this way:
“Climate change will have a profound impact on the lives of North Carolinians — in some cases it already has — so we are proud to support the Journal’s effort to inform our communities about what’s happening, what lies ahead and the choices we face.”
That’s exactly the balance I hope to strike in my reporting while also telling stories that chronicle the effects of climate change on real people.
By way of introduction, I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, but have lived in the Carolinas for more than 30 years, so the South is home to me. I’ve made more career stops than you probably care to read about, but most recently I served as executive editor at Lake Norman Media Group and its three newspapers covering communities north and east of Charlotte. Before that, I was editor at the Statesville Record & Landmark and Mooresville Tribune.
I’m thrilled to return to reporting full time after years as an editor, and to have the opportunity to delve into such a critical subject.
Since the 19th century, the average global temperature has increased about 2 degrees, according to a report released in August by the United Nations-appointed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Two-thirds of that warming has occurred since 1975 as human-created emissions feed the ever-expanding layer of greenhouse gases that traps heat in our atmosphere.
Many Southeastern cities are more vulnerable to climate change than cities in other regions, with significant expected impacts to infrastructure and human health, the latest National Climate Assessment from the U.S. Global Change Research Program concludes.
“The vibrancy and viability of these metropolitan areas, including the people and critical regional resources located in them, are increasingly at risk due to heat, flooding, and vector-borne disease brought about by a changing climate,” the NCA notes.
Night and day
In terms of rising temperatures, our logical first instinct is to focus on extreme heat we experience in daylight hours. But climate scientists are increasingly concerned about rising nighttime temperatures. In fact, in the Southeast, there has been little change in the frequency of days with extreme heat (95 degrees or warmer) since 1950, the NCA reports. But over the same period, the number of nights when the temperature doesn’t fall below 75 degrees has steadily increased.
Why does that matter? Without at least a nighttime break from the heat, people without access to adequate cooling face heightened health risks. Climate experts expect the warmer-night trends to continue, and the frequency of extreme hot days to also increase.
But warming also has more indirect effects on human health.
For example, the Southeast already is more at risk for hosting disease-carrying mosquitoes than any other region of the country. Rising temperatures have the potential to expand the mosquito habitat and increase the risk of related illness, the NCA says.
In terms of impacts of higher temperatures on weather activity itself, the extreme rain events we’ve experienced in North Carolina in recent years are expected to become even more common. And while some of that flood-producing rainfall will be the result of hurricanes, an increasing number of extreme systems will form over land as the atmosphere warms and becomes more moisture laden, the NCA predicts.
The assessment also notes that ecosystems will be transformed as the region warms. Less heat-tolerant plant species will suffer and in many cases disappear, and be replaced by others that thrive in warmer weather.
It’s not just highly populated communities that face circumstances related to climate change, the NCA emphasizes. Workers in industries that drive rural economies — such as agriculture, timber and construction — will face increased exposure from higher summer temperatures. That not only will pose increased risks to workers’ health, but it also will lead to significant loss of production when conditions are too severe for outdoor work.
Not just gloom and doom
While much of what I’ve described sounds grim, I have no interest in taking an apocalyptic approach to reporting on climate change. It’s not what you want to read, and it ignores the countless ways people, companies and organizations are using innovation to ease emissions output and assist others in doing the same.
After all, the degree to which most long term, climate-related projections play out is dependent on the decisions we make and actions we take, so solutions must be central to the conversation.
And I hope we can make it a conversation. If you have thoughts or ideas related to our coverage of climate change and the environment, I’d love to hear them.
John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.