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Tom Baxter: Southern US coast already feels impact of climate change
A hog farm is inundated with floodwaters from Hurricane Florence near Trenton, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Michael, this week’s hurricane, has picked up in the Gulf of Mexico and is expected to hit the Florida Panhandle today, far from the areas recently devastated by Hurricane Florence.

08292018 TOM BAXTER
Tom Baxter
Increasingly, however, the challenges of a changing climate are shared disproportionately, and add-on events define the scope of natural disaster. So there is worry along all the rivers and streams flooded by Florence, from the Waccamaw in South Carolina north throughout Eastern North Carolina. The word “drag” seems to be occurring more frequently in weather reports, describing the inland march of heavy rains following a storm’s coastal impact. With water levels still above normal, they’re worried about the drag.

Eastern North Carolina seems destined by geography, economy and politics to become a battleground in the emerging war over climate change, which over the past couple of days has taken a fateful turn.

It is that part of the South which protrudes farthest into the Atlantic Ocean, making it most sensitive to rising sea levels and more frequent storms. It’s a major population center, although it seems much less so than the bustling metro areas in the central part of the state. 

While it has fewer people, Eastern North Carolina is home to “huge cities of hogs,”  as Rick Dove of the watchdog Waterkeeper Alliance described them. At any given time, there are 6 to 7 million hogs, producing several times the amount of sewage of a similar number of humans, with no sewage treatment plants, in an area increasingly prone to flooding. It’s also home to a growing poultry industry.

After more than 30 hours in the air filming the impact of Florence along with other volunteers, Dove said he doubts industry estimates of 5,500 hogs and 4 million chickens killed by the storm, but can’t prove the toll was higher. Farms have grown much more aware they’re being filmed from the air, he said, and have gotten “very secretive.” At least 110 “hog lagoons,” holding ponds for pig waste, were breached or compromise by the storm, with the resulting damage to the surrounding environment.

The region is also home to a coastal beach town economy where developers are highly sensitive to governmental limits on where they can build. When a state science panel issued a report in 2010 predicting rising sea levels, the legislature, urged on by coastal landowners and developers, passed a law barring any government agency from using the predictions in their strategic planning. Thus you have the perfect stage for the sort of conflicts that a changing climate could bring.

On Monday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report stating that the harshest impacts of global warming are likely to be felt sooner than earlier studies have predicted, as early as 2040. The report came only hours after Brazilian voters in the first round of their presidential election gave strong support to a candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, who has proposed joining the United States in withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and supports the rollback of the thin set of environmental regulations protecting the Amazon rainforest. 

The UN report foresees a time not far away when rising seas force the displacement of millions of people, when the world’s coral reefs are lost forever, and forest fires and crop failures bring economic crisis.

“In some parts of the world, national borders will become irrelevant,” said Aromar Revi, one of the authors of the report. “You can set up a wall to try to contain 10,000 and 20,000 and 1 million people, but not 10 million.” 

If it’s true that radical changes in the way we produce and use energy are necessary to avoid such a catastrophe, then the chance that it will happen has increased dramatically this week. The timetable for disaster has been shortened considerably, and the political will to do anything about it is much weaker.

Even if global disaster comes, it will be from the piling-on of one local disaster after another. It is coming one collapsed sea wall, one flooded pig farm at a time. And some places, like Eastern North Carolina, will feel its effect much sooner than others.

Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.

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