News: CJ Exclusives

Climate Change Commission Gets a Cold Shoulder

Concerns over global warming hit the back burner in a sluggish economy

After five years brainstorming for ways the state could fight global warming, and spending more than $80,000, North Carolina’s Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change went out without a bang at the end of the General Assembly’s short session, unable to convince lawmakers to renew its charter.

The 34-member commission, comprising lawmakers, academics, business representatives, and environmentalists, formed in 2005 with the intent of studying climate change and seeing what, if anything, the state could do to limit it. Year after year, the commission asked the General Assembly for more time to come up with recommendations. In May 2010, the commission published its final report.

The report contained 42 “recommendations for future consideration” and seven legislative proposals for immediate consideration, one of which was to establish a permanent climate change commission. The wish was not granted.

The two proposals that did become law only commissioned more studies. One ordered a study of carbon sequestration. The other directed state agencies to review current environmental programs in the light of global warming.

Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who co-chaired the commission, said there were too many disagreements and not enough time to make a case for establishing a permanent climate change commission in the short session.

“We were pretty truncated and mostly focused on the budget,” Harrison said. “There weren’t a lot of controversial issues that we had enough time to get to.”

Harrison acknowledged it’s debatable whether a state can do anything to prevent global warming, but said North Carolina should at least take measures to adapt.

“We have the third most vulnerable coastline to sea level rise,” she said. “That’s something that’s really not debatable. That’s something that’s happening.”

Other things the state should prepare for include a potential influx of bugs that kill trees, the inability to grow Christmas trees, the flooding of the Outer Banks, and outbreaks of heat-related illnesses.

Roy Cordato, vice president for research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation, said public concern over global warming reached its peak several years ago and has been diminishing in step with the declining economy ever since.

The Climate Change Commission missed the boat, he said. If it wanted to get any legislation passed it should’ve done so years ago, when people cared more about the issue.

“Now polls show people are more likely to believe there are ghosts or that aliens will attack the Earth,” he said.

A letter sent in April by representatives of the energy, manufacturing, forestry, agricultural and auto industries exemplified the kind of resistance Harrison said the commission was up against.

The letter expressed opposition to the commission’s recommendations, which included phasing out coal plants, reducing the use of woody biomass, moving toward public transportation, and lowering vehicle emissions.

The businessmen threatened additional environmental regulations would “continue to create unemployment” and pointed to California as “a recent example of what happens when states overburden employers with mandates.”

“As much as we had hoped to have the cooperation of the industries that were going to be impacted by the climate commission, it seemed like they weren’t supportive and that makes it a higher hurdle to make the sale to the public and our colleagues,” Harrison said.

Harrison said she hopes Washington passes an energy bill addressing climate change soon, so the states won’t have to worry so much about it.

“If the federal government isn’t going to do anything, the states need to be a little more proactive,” she said.

North Carolina Forestry Association Vice President Bob Slocum, who sat on the Climate Change Commission for five years, said he wished the commission were gone for good, but fears it will resurface.

He said if a permanent commission is ever established, he doesn’t want to be on it.

“This one took up an incredible amount of time, and I can’t say it produced anything,” he said.

Nonetheless, the Forestry Association will be keeping a close eye on the issue, he said.

“We certainly haven’t heard the last of climate change legislation in North Carolina,” Slocum said. “I expect to see some of [the recommendations] introduced next year.”

Harrison confirmed the commission would try again next year, if Democrats retain control of the legislature.

“If we get a Republican majority, all this stuff is dead,” Cordato said.

Harrison suggested it might take “an August full of 100-degree days” to make the recommendations law.

“The snow in January didn’t do us any favors,” she laughed.

Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.