As everywhere, climate change is coming for the Triangle. Credit: Nicole Pajor Moore

The dismal reality of more destructive flooding, wildfires, tornados, and hurricanes, along with melting glaciers, the extinction of plant and animal species, and limited water supplies across the globe, has been well documented.

It’s Earth Day week. 

Maybe it’s time to ponder what climate change’s impact has been here in the Triangle?

How bad is it?

The INDY spoke with several climate change scholars at NC State, NC Central, and Duke Universities to better understand—with a nod to Marvin Gaye, the first person I ever heard mention ecology—what’s going on here in the Bull City and beyond.

The academicians offered up a mix of history, marginalization and access to resources, the impact of population growth and development that degrades wildlife zones, the deadly threat of increasing temperatures, and the arrival of invasive plant species.

But they also pointed to hope by way of activism and solutions via science, along with collaborative agreements and partnerships, all augmented by practical, commonsense habits we can all practice toward achieving the goal of preventing this planet from becoming an intermediary chamber of hell.

Ashley Ward is senior policy associate with Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability. Her area of expertise is climate health resilience, with a focus on extreme heat.

“Heat kills more people than any other weather-related event for the last 30 years,” Ward tells the INDY. “More than twice as many as floods, and more than hurricanes, tornadoes, and lightning strikes combined. This is how severe it is. And it’s 100 percent preventable.”

Ward, along with the other scholars who spoke with the INDY, says while the climate crisis affects everyone, marginalized communities with limited resources are disproportionately affected.

She points to the impact extreme heat has on residents who live in historically underfunded communities in the Triangle, including “public housing communities” and “under-resourced neighborhoods” where people are more vulnerable to heat, particularly if they have underlying chronic medical conditions like high blood pressure or diabetes 

“It’s called ‘energy poverty,’” Ward says. “It’s not sufficient to say there’s air conditioning in the house if you can’t afford to run it. Some people are having to make the difficult decision of buying their medicine and not running their air conditioner. It’s not just ‘Do you have air conditioning?’ It’s also ‘Can you afford to run it?’”

Ward also points to workplace risks posed by extreme heat, and added that the threat is not only for people who work outside.

“It’s not just folks working in cucumber fields,” she says. “It’s all of us.”

Ward explains that in parts of eastern North Carolina, there have been reports of employee workplaces where temperatures reach up to 90 degrees. When the workday ends, those employees return to homes without air conditioning during nights that now experience higher temperatures.

“The body doesn’t have a chance to recover [from the heat] and starts the next workday at a deficit. Predictably, hospital emergency room visits spike in the middle of the week,” she says. “It’s not just how hot it is in this area, but also the persistently high temperatures at night that factor in to create the perfect storm that’s happening …. The body just can’t recover.”

John J. Bang is a professor of environmental, earth, and geospatial sciences at NC Central University. Part of his research includes assessing communities’ exposure to air and water pollutants from a health disparities perspective. 

Bang tells the INDY that it’s obvious that climate change will have a greater impact on people with fewer resources.

“Historically, it’s always been that way when you look at this country,” says Bang, who adds that this is the case both here in America and globally.

Bang says that here in the Triangle, the big concerns with climate change are food deserts, along with water and air quality.

The NCCU professor points to a fast-growing population and overdevelopment with the consequence of cutting down trees to make room for more buildings. There’s also an increase in transportation and fossil fuel emissions that affects air quality.

“Before overdevelopment, water quality was going down,” says Bang, who points to the increased use of water for construction as well as to meet the needs of a growing population.

Bang explains that with increased usage by a growing population, prices go up, and marginalized communities are disproportionately impacted economically and medically.

“The Research Triangle Park is one of the fastest growing regions in the country,” he says. “If you are part of a [community] with a low socioeconomic status—it’s not hard to predict more burdens for that group.” 

Bang says historically people with more resources are able to cope with the stresses coming up. For example, they may use a water filtration system on their faucet and are less likely to be affected by climate change and all other stresses.

But Bang emphasizes that regardless of your status, we all need to use tap water on some level, for showers and cooking, and we all breathe the same air.

Meanwhile, Kofi Boone, a professor of landscape architecture at NC State University, offers a historical perspective on why Black Americans and other people of color are disproportionately affected by climate change in the Triangle, the southeastern part of the United States and across the globe.

Boone says the region is experiencing unprecedented flooding from rainstorms and hurricanes. Soon after Hurricane Matthew devastated eastern North Carolina in 2016, Boone was among a cadre of researchers who participated in a statewide program to assist counties in the state that were wrecked by Matthew.

He points to Princeville, the first all-Black town in North Carolina, founded by formerly enslaved people in 1865.

Boone says the town is prone to flooding because it was built on a floodplain that serves as an escape valve for waters from the Tar River until it recedes.

Boone says that the development of a great many early African American communities were relegated to the least desirable low-lying areas. But he also points to another reason why the settlers of Princeville, in 1865, chose to build the town on a floodplain.

“It was built out of necessity close to the Union army [after the Civil War] to feel safe,” Boone explains.

Boone adds that this phenomenon has occurred across the southeastern United States, and scholars have coined a term, “racialized topography,” to describe it.

Boone points to communities in southeast Raleigh that mirror the flooding in Princeville. Biltmore Hills and Rochester Heights were built along the Walnut Creek watershed. The neighborhoods were the first subdivisions in Raleigh built on Black-owned land beginning in the late 1950s.

The NC State professor says the southeast Raleigh neighborhoods and Princeville share a similar story.

“They have the same history, the same hardships,” Boone says. “The land was bought during Reconstruction. They built the community, and now natural disasters lead to questions about how to fix it. How to conserve it.”

Boone offers a different perspective on the population growth and development across the Triangle: the threat to wildlife zones where indigenous plants thrive and animals breed and build their nests.

Boone points to the Ellerbe Creek in North Durham that stretches from Bragtown to Jordan Lake, which flows into the Neuse River before going into the Atlantic Ocean.

The schools, businesses, farms, and homes that are built along the Ellerbe Creek watershed may be good for people, Boone says, but harm the environment “where plants and species need to survive.”

“There are a bunch of tadpoles in Ellerbe Creek, but the zones where they live are getting smaller and smaller,” Boone says. “There’s the realization that animals move where they’re supposed to go. An example is all the fish, birds, and amphibians that move along the creek for food, to build their nests and hunt.”

Boone says more concerted effort to conserve the wildlife zone would bolster the chances of survival of the great blue heron, a large wading bird that is the symbol of the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. Boone says Ellerbe Creek is one of the few places in the United States where those “birds breed, build their nests, and have their babies.”

“It’s really special,” Boone adds.

Boone says the warming temperatures are also causing another phenomenon: plants that grow farther south in South Carolina and Georgia are now appearing in North Carolina.

“They’re creeping up and pushing out the natural plant species that can’t take the heat,” he says.

Boone says the top three climate crisis threats in the Triangle are access to quality drinking water; the loss of natural habitats due to destruction caused by human development, storms, and drought; and public health and the treatment of diseases that are expected to move south.

“Those are the big ones we have to worry about,” he says. “That, and Black people and other marginalized groups already at high risk who are last in line to get resources to protect our communities.”

Still, in the face of such a dire situation, the climate crisis forecast is not all gloom and doom.

Science and technology are trying to meet the challenge of addressing climate change. Engineers in Orange County, California are making that region drought-resilient by relying on a process that includes microfiltration and reverse osmosis to transform wastewater into
drinking water.

Bang, with NCCU, says nanotechnology is being used to remove pollutants from our water and air, and Ward, with Duke, points to the need for North Carolina to adopt the national cooling standard some states already have in use.

“There are heating standards, but we do not have cooling standards in North Carolina,” Ward says. 

Here in the Triangle, Boone points to a group of activists in southeast Raleigh working to address flooding in the Biltmore Hills and Rochester Heights neighborhoods, where streets are named after famous African Americans. The community’s activism was ignited by Hurricane Floyd in 1999, when Walnut Creek flooded and devastated the historic neighborhoods. What followed was the creation of the Walnut Creek Wetland Center, which educates its visitors about “the importance of wetlands for clean water, habitat, and recreation while emphasizing the importance of human interaction with nature,” according to its website.

Along with technology, activism, and education, the scholars say that all of us can take commonsense actions that will contribute to the future well-being of a planet bedeviled by frequent, often deadly weather disasters and other climate-out-of-order stresses.

“Take cool showers after work,” Ward says. “Or immerse your feet in a cool tub of water.”

Place a wet cheesecloth on your fan at night to cool the air if you don’t have an air conditioner, she adds.

Bang says to take shorter showers. Recycle. Plant trees. The NCCU scholar says he’s gotten into the habit of giving trees away.

“I started about six years ago,” he says. 

“Conservation is something we can all do, or something we can not all do,” Bang says. “To not do … is a terrible mistake.”

At the beginning, middle, and end of life on Earth, climate change affects us all. A tornado bearing down on a farmhouse, the sun’s extreme heat causing a high school athlete to die from heat exhaustion, or a raging wildfire consuming your home does not consider race, class, ethnicity, religion, education, or political affiliation.

All three scholars say the challenge for Triangle residents and beyond is seeing the big picture.

“Conservation is something we can all do, or something we can not all do. To not do … is a terrible mistake.”

“People are busy living their everyday lives and they can’t see it on a global scale,” Bang says. “‘Climate change is something happening in other places.’ When people understand, it will make a big difference in how they live and how they drive.”  

Ward agrees and encourages more urban tree planting to cool temperatures, but she says the federal government has a decisive role in mitigating the adverse effects of extreme heat.

The difference, she says, will determine when children can play outside and the health impact on patrons at bus stops and pedestrians. 

“When we have livable communities with clean air and a cool environment, people in those neighborhoods will have better individual health outcomes and well-being,” she says. 

“People have to see themselves as part of the world, and invest in its stewardship,” Boone says. “Explore making a good start in your own community,” he adds.

“We’re trying to inspire people.”

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