Pandemic points to needed cooperation on the climate crisis

Pandemic points to needed cooperation on the climate crisis

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In a time of multiple and unprecedented challenges to individuals and societal well-being, our nation badly needs to pull back from the growing acrimony that plagues us and revisit our many shared values.

It won’t be easy to gradually return to patient talking – and listening – to each other. However, lessons from the ongoing global pandemic provide a critically important opportunity to spring forward to “a better normal” in dealing with the even larger crisis of climate change.

Under Governor Cooper’s direction, most North Carolinians across the political spectrum have been willing to sacrifice in response to the pandemic through actions benefiting their loved ones and the common good.

Doing our part to slow global climate change is less painful but quite urgent. Practical and affordable steps to phase out coal- and gas-fired electricity will benefit all North Carolinians by reducing energy bills, improving public health, creating jobs and helping mitigate hurricanes and other weather extremes. This is particularly important for the most vulnerable: low-wealth communities and people of color hard-hit by COVID-19, many of whom are suffering through recurring powerful storms.

The shift to cost-effective renewable power, paired with energy storage and energy-balancing systems – and phased in system-wide – is less expensive than expanding fossil fuel use. This approach is precisely the economic and job-creation engine needed to alleviate the impacts of what could well be an extended global recession.

Can we rise to this challenge together? Along with 40 former EPA officials from this state, in September we urged Governor Roy Cooper and Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good to lead a new chapter of broad cooperation so that North Carolina can do its part to help slow the global climate emergency while strengthening the state’s economy.

Put simply: North Carolinians must seize the opportunity to build a safer, more equitable and economically sound state because a return to business-as-usual could be disastrous.

In July, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy cancelled the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline after investing six years and $5 billion. We commend that decision. However, Duke leaders still plan to build some 50 gas-fired generation units in the Carolinas by 2035, plus a controversial gas storage facility in Robeson County. They are also considering an investment in the Mountain Valley Pipeline, another gas pipeline construction project proposed for our state.

Natural gas is mostly methane. Mounting evidence shows that methane – a highly potent heat-trapping gas – plays a key role in climate change while directly leading to some 25,000 annual air pollution-induced deaths in the U.S. alone. Levels of methane in the atmosphere have hit an all-time high, and the U.S. fracking industry is an important contributor.

Reducing methane emissions is crucial for limiting climate change in the near term. Doing so can provide vital benefits, including fewer people dying from air pollution and heat waves and harmed by powerful storms and wildfires.

The climate crisis demands that we stop building fossil fuel infrastructure immediately. Other states, utilities and other corporations are shifting rapidly to renewables paired with energy storage and efficient usage – an approach that is beating natural gas-fired generation on cost, reliability and jobs. Polls show that the clean energy approach is popular across our state’s political spectrum and is particularly important to customers on low and fixed incomes.

We commend the ongoing work toward implementation of Gov. Cooper’s 2019 Clean Energy Plan, but all of its worthy elements will be outmatched by the climate impacts of a continued natural gas expansion.

With record-breaking wildfire and hurricane seasons well underway, and with many of our state’s most vulnerable people still recovering from storms of the past three years, this is the time for Gov. Cooper and Duke Energy to inspire the public so that we can pull together and rise to the climate challenge.

North Carolinians have a shared moral obligation to help reduce the suffering of people being harmed by climate change.  Due to its size, Duke Energy’s shift to clean energy could be globally impactful. As the pandemic continues to demonstrate the need for our cooperation, we urge CEO Good and Governor Cooper to foster a powerful new alignment of North Carolinians willing to combine forces against the unprecedented human challenge posed by the climate crisis.

Drew Shindell is Distinguished Professor of Earth Sciences, Duke University.

Jim Warren is Executive Director of the nonprofit NC WARN.