City mulls support for climate action, Paris Agreement


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Elizabeth City City Council may take a stance on climate change.

During last week's council meeting, councilors agreed to consider a resolution supporting the Paris Agreement, a landmark international agreement in which nations pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help developing countries mitigate impacts of global warming. President Donald Trump announced earlier this month he intends to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement, but numerous state and municipal officials have pledged they will still pursue the agreement's goals through local action.

Additionally, Mayor Joe Peel agreed to look into joining “Climate Mayors,” an association of mayors and cities pledging to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The council began considering climate issues following comments from Joseph Persico, a local teacher and member of the citizens' group NorthEast North Carolina Progressives. Persico urged the council to support the Paris Agreement and take “tangible” actions in support of its goals.

“The main goal is to put strategies in place to limit the warming of our planet to less than 2 degrees Celsius” above pre-industrial levels, Persico said. He also encouraged Peel to join the Climate Mayors group.

Persico also rejected claims that climate change is a “hoax” – a claim Trump himself has made – and said “there is a consensus among the world's leading climate scientists that global warming, caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, is the most significant problem facing the world today.”

To that point, a Bloomberg.com article from Thursday explained that a 2013 research paper reviewing scientific literature found that “among abstracts expressing a position on [anthropogenic global warming], 97.1 percent endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.” That finding is what has led to the common claim that “97 percent of climate scientists” believe in anthropogenic, or man-made, global warming. The Bloomberg article does note, however, that two-thirds of the papers reviewed expressed no view on man-made global warming, though many of those authors later agreed humans are causing global warming.

As to the importance of addressing global warming, numerous governmental and scientific organizations have warned of the consequences of a warming planet. In examples, both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Union of Concerned Scientists warn on their websites of rising sea levels, stronger hurricanes, and more heat waves and droughts, among other impacts.

More locally, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill students reported to the Elizabeth City City Council last year that, based on research they did in consultation with city staff, water levels could rise as much as four feet in Elizabeth City by 2100. Due to rising seas and naturally sinking land, they warned portions of downtown Elizabeth City could be permanently underwater in coming decades.

City Councilor Ray Donnelly called for the council to follow Persico's advice.

“I think the Paris accord was significant, is significant, and we need to be supportive of that as a community,” Donnelly said. “Not talk about a lot of different things – just do something.”

What would that “something” look like, however? That's unclear – but “tangible” actions could prove expensive.

In an interview Friday, City Manager Rich Olson weighed in on steps organizations sometimes take to reduce emissions and use cleaner energy. He expressed no opinion on climate change or the Paris Agreement, however.

One way to reduce emissions is to switch to electric cars. There have been major advancements in electric cars, Olson said, but he said they still face significant limitations. Battery technology still needs to improve so those cars can travel longer, he said, and there's a lack of recharging infrastructure in the area. They also remain more expensive than conventional vehicles, he said, meaning it could be very costly for the city to replace its fleet of more than 200 vehicles with electric ones.

Another example is buying more energy from renewable sources, including wind and solar. As a member of the N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency, the city is required through a “full-requirements” agreement to buy renewable energy from certain sources, he said. That also means the city cannot simply go out and buy power from sources outside the agreement, he said.

He also said he didn't believe it would be cost-effective for the city to install rooftop solar panels – though he noted city residents are free to install home solar to reduce their own power bills.

The city can also reduce emissions simply by using less energy. Asked about steps that could reduce the city's power consumption, Olson noted the city is gradually replacing streetlights citywide with more efficient LED bulbs. City residents seem satisfied with those new bulbs so far, he noted.

Governments also try to reduce emissions through regulations on the private sector. However, Olson said Elizabeth City has no authority to regulate air quality, which is handled at the state level.

Absent the council committing to major new spending to make the city a greener operation, Olson said the city's response to climate change concerns may simply be trying to raise awareness and educate the public.