Chicken farms submerged from flooding in North Carolina. Above banner photo: pollution run off from pig farms that seeps out during rain storms and floods in adjust lands. Courtesy photos

January 2021

By Brianna Cunliffe – Chief Investigative Reporter

Disasters both man-made and natural have characterized the past year for elected officials representing constituencies from Culver City to the Jersey Shore. Atop the pandemic and subsequent economic tailspin, America’s coastal states endured an especially brutal hurricane season. Alongside the rest of the nation, they are also reckoning with pervasive racial injustice, brought into the light by peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and made evident by studies showing that communities of color have had the highest death rates from COVID, as well hospitalization rates that are four to six times worse than White communities. 

Driven by these dire circumstances, over 160 elected officials have signed a letter stating that urgent action combating climate change and systemic change that addresses racial inequalities has to happen now. Elected Officials to Protect America (EOPA) is urging President-elect Biden to prioritize a National Climate Plan that will be just for all and employ hundreds of thousands transitioning America to a clean energy economy. 

Elected officials from across New England are fighting for an innovative new initiative to revitalize transportation infrastructure and rescue public health through the Transportation and Climate Initiative. North Carolina is looking to the Center for American Progress’ recent report  as a path forward to build a just future. In Culver City, California, a groundbreaking energy transition is already underway. Local elected officials in these states echo the mandate for bold action contained within the Senate Special Committee on the Climate Crisis’s recent report. Weaving together the testimony of labor unions, Native communities, mayors and constituents from across the country, the report illuminates the possibility of creating ten million jobs while also achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  

The outgoing administration has opposed clean energy development and denies the realities of climate change, but President-elect Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord immediately and sets the goal of achieving a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050. With Democratic control in the Senate now certain, the prospects for bold action are greatly enhanced. 

“President-elect Biden will need support to create climate solutions from elected officials across the country,” said Elected Officials to Protect America President, former Marine combat veteran, and ME State Legislator Alex Cornell du Houx. “Climate disasters are happening now and are making the pandemic even more deadly. Our communities and the world deserve urgent action.”

The international community has long been sounding the alarm. The United Nations, in partnership with over 100 scientists, academics, and economists, released its own roadmap to U.S. net-zero emissions by 2050, one which would only cost one half of one percent of our GDP.  That’s only half of one percent — for countless benefits to our health, economy, and social fabric, and to avoid untold devastation.

On both the national and state levels, elected officials say that the climate crisis’ impacts are so glaring that it can no longer be ignored. In rural North Carolina, heat illness is on the rise, with disproportionate effects devastating at-risk communities, especially farmworkers and those living in mobile homes. The threat multiplier of the climate crisis exacerbates existing social vulnerabilities such as access to adequate housing, medical care, and funds enough not to worry about the cost of cooling. What was once thought as a predominantly urban problem is reaching into the heart of every community, and its consequences can be deadly. 

Ventura County on fire. Fire season hits yearly, and has intensified due to climate change.

Heatwaves are responsible for the most deaths caused by weather-related events in the U. S., and the number of heatwaves that occur is projected to only increase as climate change worsens. 

In California, apocalyptic wildfires have brought the climate crisis front and center, with over 4 million acres torched by this extraordinarily brutal season and thousands displaced or losing their homes to the blazes. While Governor Gavin Newsom has begun to transition the state rapidly to electric vehicles, over 315 state and local elected officials are demanding even bolder action. 

Ventura County has stepped up to protect their citizens from hazardous oil and gas wells, as the Board of Supervisors voted to pass the 2,500-foot safety buffer for schools and study increasing setbacks to 2,500-foot from all sensitive receptors by 2022. 

“Our hard working, immigrant and  Latino community defied the odds and said no to allowing obsolete fossil fuel power plants on it’s once abused coastline. Because we said no to the natural gas-fired power plant on our ocean, now we will have a hundred-megawatt clean energy storage facility. It will replace much of what the rejected Puente Power Plant at the Mandalay Generating Station power plant proposal offered,” said Carmen Ramirez Esq.,Ventura County Supervisor and the Co-Chair of EOPA-California’s Leadership Council. 

Ventura County on fire – image taken by a NASA

Culver City, California has also taken bold actions under the leadership of Meghan Sahli-Wells, former Culver City Mayor, and the Co-Chair of Elected Officials to Protect America-California’s  Leadership Council.

“The fossil fuel industry keeps giving us this false choice between a healthy economy or a healthy environment. Here in Culver City, we’re proving that just isn’t true,” said Sahli-Wells, “We’re phasing out fossil fuels, we’ve already transitioned to 100 percent clean renewable energy, and in the process we’re creating good, healthy, sustainable union jobs. Together, we’re creating, not the energy future, but the energy present that we need to power and protect our community.”

Across the country in New Jersey, Atlantic County Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick has seen firsthand the ways inaction can strand vulnerable coastal communities.

“Atlantic County deals with road-blocking flooding on a monthly basis. We have to time our commutes around the tide. That’s not normal, and it can’t go on,” said Fitzpatrick, who sits on EOPA – New Jersey’s Leadership Council. “It’s essential to have the resources we need to protect and improve our infrastructure so that we can continue to grow and thrive. We need a National Climate Plan which I urge President-elect Biden and Congress to enact.” 

In North Carolina, Danielle Adams, former Durham County Soil and Water Supervisor, sees urgency and opportunity in changing long-entrenched and outdated systems for the better instead of just waiting to deal with the impacts. Heat illness, the consequences of industrial agriculture, and flooding are just some of the challenges she and her district face, and they’re only worsening with time. 

“As a board supervisor, who’s responsible for disseminating disaster relief funds — I don’t want that to be my job. I hate that that’s my job. I would rather we spend money, use our technical expertise and the experience of our staff to go out there and prepare low-income minority communities to shift away from big factory farms and hog farms,” said Adams. “We have to explore ways to cultivate resilience.” 

Governor Cooper’s Clean Energy Plan and the North Carolina Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan promises to improve North Carolina’s triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. From the perspective of those like Adams, who represent communities of color, it is also a deeply necessary step towards rectifying the past serious harms visited upon the vulnerable communities of this state. 

North Carolina already leads the region in clean energy, ranking #3 in the SELC’s assessment of solar. They aren’t alone in the rapid steps they’ve taken towards an energy transition. Despite a lack of federal action, through leadership by state and local governments, 1 in 3 Americans now live in a state or city that is committed to 100 percent clean electricity.

Local action, though powerful, is not enough, says Elected Officials to Protect America. They believe it will take a national commitment for America to phase out fossil fuels on the most ambitious timeline possible. 

Supervisor of the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District, Jenna Wadsworth represents 1.2 million North Carolinians, and recently ran in a statewide election to become Commissioner of Agriculture on a platform dedicated to addressing climate change. While she lost her bid, her campaign is commended by many for having  the courage to take on the harmful industries that put agriculture at risk of devastating floods and pollution.

“The race was about ushering in new ideas, transformative opportunities and solutions to support our family farmers, to strengthen our rural communities, to protect our environment and to deliver on our promises to our children,” said Wadsworth. “I know that the plans laid out by President-elect Joe Biden are our best chances to save our agricultural industry in both Western North Carolina and across the state as a whole. We’ll have an opportunity to address the root cause of many of the problems that our agricultural community face.”As he ascends to office during this incredibly tumultuous period, state and local elected officials on the front lines implore President-elect Biden and Congress to, as their campaign slogan said, “build back better” — to transition America to a clean energy economy and protect its citizens for generations to come.