North Carolina’s mountainous western landscape eases to coastal plains in the east, where the state boasts 322 miles of coastline and, at over 12 thousand miles, the second-largest estuarine system in the country. Off North Carolina’s coast are the Outer Banks, the site of the first European colony in the 1500s, which are now rapidly disappearing into the Atlantic Ocean as the sea levels rise. Home to about 10.5 million people and stretching almost 50 thousand square miles, North Carolina is also home to 8 Native American tribes and 4 urban Indian organizations. Among those are the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who have reclaimed a sovereign nation of 100 square miles.
Both coastal and inland flooding are urgent threats in North Carolina. Sea levels along the Atlantic Coast are rising even more rapidly than elsewhere, because the coast is also sinking due to erosion. Over 120 thousand people are currently at risk of coastal flooding in and that number is expected to rise by 44 thousand by 2050. Higher sea levels also make it more likely that storm surges breach barriers — a concern as tropical storms and hurricanes intensify in warmer waters. Since 1958, the amount of precipitation during heavy rainstorms has increased 27% in the Southeast, a trend that is projected to continue. Almost half a million people in North Carolina are living in an area with elevated risk of inland flooding.
Clearly no stranger to hurricanes and wet weather, North Carolina has been hit exceptionally hard in recent years. The most devastating, Hurricane Florence (September, 2018), caused at least $13 billion in damages, as well as knocking out power for 1.1 million North Carolinians, and costing 142 people their lives. It hit as the state was still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Matthew (2016), which created widespread flooding, much of which lingered for weeks after the rains had stopped — the soil too saturated to allow water to infiltrate and the slope of the land too shallow to create much possibility for drainage. And, then came Hurricane Michael (October, 2018), knocking out power for thousands and flooding the Northern Outer Banks. Dorian was the one to remember in 2019 as was Isaias in August, 2020, bringing 15 tornadoes along with it. As oceans warm, hurricanes will get wetter and heavier, primed to dispense thousands of gallons on coastal regions and low-lying areas, flooding homes, destroying infrastructure, and endangering lives.
North Carolina remains one of the top ten nuclear energy producers in the US. Nuclear energy was the largest source of electricity in North Carolina in 2019, providing almost one-third of the state’s electricity. Natural gas provided only slightly less exceeding coal-fired generation for the first time since 2016. Prior to 2012, coal-fired power plants supplied more than half of the electricity generated in North Carolina; however, nearly 30 coal-fired units have since been retired and 30 natural gas-fired units added. By 2019, coal provided less than one-fourth. More than 10% of electricity in North Carolina comes from renewable energy, the majority of which is solar, followed by hydroelectricity, biomass and a small, but potentially growing amount of wind as Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina agreed, in October 2021, to join forces to build offshore power projects. North Carolina ranks second after California in the country for installed solar generating capacity.
North Carolina was the first state in the Southeast to adopt a Renewable Energy Standard in 2007. The RES requires investor-owned utilities to meet 12.5% of their sales from renewable energy by 2021, while rural electric cooperatives and municipal electric suppliers were required to meet 10% by 2018. In 2020, North Carolina released its Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, the culmination of an interdisciplinary effort mandated in 2018 by Governor Roy Cooper. This is the state’s first adaptation plan and includes vulnerability assessments across 11 sectors, climate justice concerns and strategies, and recommendations for nature-based solutions to enhance ecosystem resiliency and carbon sequestering. In October, 2021, the governor signed House Bill 951 turning a compromise on North Carolina’s energy future between his office and legislative Republicans into law. A milestone energy bill, which aims to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s power plants, setting carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets of 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050 for Duke Energy, this revised version of House Bill 951 will shape North Carolina’s energy mix for decades. In a ceremony with legislators from both parties, Governor Cooper enacted a law that now tasks the state Utilities Commission with coming up by the end of 2022 with the arrangements to meet the carbon dioxide reduction goals sought by the governor.
At least 16 states previously have passed legislation establishing greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The only other Southeast state to have done so before Wednesday was Virginia.
North Carolina is one of twenty-four states, along with Puerto Rico, committed to the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is working to implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement.