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. 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.
Nuclear energy was the largest source of electricity in North Carolina until 2018 when it was overtaken by natural gas. North Carolina is among the top five nuclear energy producers in the US and it provides about one-third of the state’s electricity. Prior to 2012, coal-fired power plants supplied more than half of the electricity generated in North Carolina; however, 20 coal units have since been retired. Over 10% of electricity in North Carolina comes from renewable energy, and about one-third of that share comes from solar energy. The state’s solar industry is rapidly growing, and 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 (9). 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.
North Carolina is one of twenty five states committed to the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is working to implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement.