Wilmington-area conservatives debate climate change after Florence

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As local weather takes dramatic turns, more voters forced to reinforce — or question — their beliefs

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WILMINGTON — It took a giant laurel oak puncturing her roof during Hurricane Florence last month for Margie White to consider that perhaps there was some truth to all the alarm bells over global warming.

“I always thought climate change was a bunch of nonsense, but now I really do think it is happening,” said White, a 65-year-old Trump supporter, as she and her young grandson watched workers haul away downed trees and other debris lining the streets of her posh seaside neighborhood last week, just as Hurricane Michael made landfall 700 miles away in the Florida Panhandle.

Storms have grown more frequent — and more intense — over the 26 years she and her husband have lived in Wilmington, White said, each one chipping away at their skepticism. Climate change has even seeped into their morning conversations as they sip coffee, ever since the neighbor’s tree came crashing onto their home and property, coming to rest along nearly the entire length of their driveway.

While President Donald Trump continued this week to deny the effects of climate change in the face of overwhelming scientific agreement that it is occurring — most recently noted in a landmark United Nations report that he has dismissed — a discernible shift appears to be occurring among Republican voters in North Carolina, a state pummeled by two hurricanes in two years.

The impact, say residents of this conservative congressional district, lies right before their eyes, prompting conversations among farmers, fishermen and others on how climate change has hurt the local economy and environment.

Downtown streets and parking lots along the Cape Fear River, like those surrounding tourist attractions such as the Battleship North Carolina, flood regularly, including last week as the remnants of Michael blew through town. Flooding during Hurricane Florence cut off Wilmington from the rest of the state for days. Lagoons full of hog manure on industrial farms northwest of the city overflowed, contaminating water sources and killing fish. Toxic coal ash, too, was released into the river.

Separately, fishermen have noticed in recent years that black sea bass are migrating north because of warming ocean temperatures. Other watermen say they’re finding more saltwater fish such as flounder upriver as the sea level rises.

“I’m not a scientist. I just know what I see,” said Carl Marshburn, a Republican who has operated tour boats along the Cape Fear River for three decades. He said he’s had to start coating the bottom of his river boats with antifouling paint to prevent barnacles and other marine organisms from growing amid saltwater intrusion.

No longer is the topic taboo among many conservative business owners, homeowners and voters here in New Hanover County, a swing county in a swing state, both of which Trump won by four points in 2016.

Politicians have adopted a GOP-friendly term to discuss climate change, referring to sea level rise as “recurrent flooding,” said Rob Zapple, a Democrat in a competitive race to hang onto his New Hanover County commissioner seat.

“They can see and feel and understand the effects,” he said. “All of a sudden, we were allowed to have a conversation with our Republican counterparts.”

Although it’s unlikely to immediately change voting behavior, the shift is reflected in recent polling.

An Elon University survey taken in early October, after Hurricane Florence hit, showed that 37 percent of Republicans believe global warming is “very likely” to negatively impact North Carolina coastal communities in the next 50 years. That is nearly triple the percentage of Republicans – 13 percent – who felt that way in 2017.

The percentage of Republicans who felt climate change is “not at all likely” to harm the state’s coastal communities dropped by 10 points over the past year – from 41 percent in 2017 to 31 percent now.

“That suggests to me that there’s a very large minority within the Republican Party who are at least open to the first steps to accepting that climate change is a possibility,” said Jason Husser, a political-science professor who directs the Elon poll. “It signals some sort of tipping point.”

Moreover, nearly half of Republicans surveyed said that incorporating findings from climate-change scientists into local government planning is a good idea and three-quarters said real estate development should be restricted along flood-prone areas.

Husser acknowledged that some of the shift in opinion could have resulted from the context in which voters were interviewed, with the latest poll asking respondents about climate change after having questioned them about their experiences during Hurricane Florence.

Nationally, a wide partisan chasm remains, with only 11 percent of Republicans describing climate change as a “very big” problem compared to 72 percent of Democrats, according to a new poll released this week by the Pew Research Center.

Plenty of residents in North Carolina’s southeastern corner still reject the science, attributing changing weather patterns to God and the cycle of nature. A group of college students fishing off a pier at Wrightsville Beach last week called climate change a “load of crap.” A surfer taking advantage of Hurricane Michael’s turbulent waves dismissed it as “propaganda.” A sunburned construction worker said it’s not worth worrying about because “God takes care of it.”

Their sentiments echo Trump’s skepticism. During a “60 Minutes” interview televised last Sunday, Trump said he believes the climate is changing but that “it’ll change back.” While touring storm ravaged communities this week he continued to question whether climate change is man-made.

Under Trump, the United States has announced its withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and has rolled back environmental protections that he said were hurting industries and killing jobs. References to climate change have been scrubbed from the websites of several federal agencies. But the administration has also justified a decision to freeze federal fuel-efficiency standards by presenting global warming as a fait accompli, predicting that the planet is already on course to warm seven degrees by the end of this century. (Trump’s development firm cited global warming and rising seas as the reason it needed to build a wall to protect his Ireland golf resort from erosion.)

Many other GOP politicians, too, remain wary of bringing up climate change as a campaign issue. All 12 Republicans representing North Carolina in Congress, including Rep. David Rouzer, whose district includes Wilmington, have expressed doubts about global warming or its causes.

Rouzer was among the Republicans who, in 2012, attacked climate science to kill a state report warning of the dangers of climate change. Instead of planning for the ocean rising by three feet by the end of the century, as scientists predicted in the report, Republicans came up with a new 30-year forecast that predicted sea levels rising by a maximum of eight inches. They said that the longer outlook would erode property values and hinder development along the state’s coastline.

Maverick Doane, co-founder and president of the Republican student club at Cape Fear Community College, had interned for Rouzer and plans to vote for him in November. But he’d like to see Rouzer and other Republican politicians acknowledge that climate change is real.

“Basically, I find it quite ludicrous that people just ignore the facts,” the 18-year-old said. “I would like to see some initiative in at least addressing it.”

More than a dozen moderate Republicans in Congress from other states have pushed for confronting the risks of climate change through “economically viable solutions” such as clean energy.

Shifting public opinion was also evident in Phil Garwood’s geology class at the community college’s campus in downtown Wilmington. The school reopened last week after being closed for a month following Hurricane Florence, and Garwood was using recent weather events to teach about climate change. He had taped a map tracking Hurricane Michael to the blackboard, on which he’d written in chalk evidence for global warming.

“Students used to say this is bull,” said Garwood, recalling that a former student had written a letter to the dean complaining that he was teaching about “God’s domain.” But the topic has become more interesting to recent students, he said, “because it’s not abstract anymore.”

Take Seth Eure, a 24-year-old aspiring agriculture lawyer who comes from a family of chicken and soybean farmers and who grew up in a fundamentalist Christian, “hardcore Republican” home.

In high school, he said, “I didn’t want to admit climate change was a thing. I was the same with evolution.”

Now Eure, a self-described former Republican turned “freethinking American,” considers global warming an inescapable part of his future job lobbying on behalf of farmers.

Ten miles away in Wrightsville Beach, where mattresses, drywall and trash bags were piled in front of waterfront homes still under repair, Jon Taylor, a 55-year-old sunscreen salesman and self-described “Trump fan,” lamented the environmental impact of the last hurricane. He recounted seeing raw sewage seeping into the ocean and turning it into “chocolate milk.”

As someone who has spent his life on the water, he said, he knows instinctively that the ocean temperature is rising with each passing year.

“You could relate it back to climate change. The water gets warmer and we’re going to have a lot of problems,” said Taylor, referring to more intense hurricanes, eroding beaches, and more homes washed away. “People see what’s happening. It’s in your face and it’s not going away.”