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Reasons for hope about climate change

Earth continues to warm because of human-driven emissions of carbon. But there are signs of hope.
Earth continues to warm because of human-driven emissions of carbon. But there are signs of hope.

This story originally appeared as part of WFAE's weekly climate newsletter, out Thursdays. To get the news straight to your inbox first, sign up here.

When I started full-time on the climate beat two and a half years ago, I dove into books, articles and United Nations' reports about the challenges we face — globally and locally. I wanted facts, like why scientists say we need to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Or what melting glaciers in the Arctic mean for sea level rise.

I wanted to understand the bad news. I found it in books like David Wallace-Wells' "The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming." Its chapter titles paint a scary picture of a warming planet: "Heat Death," "Hunger," "Unbreathable Air," "Economic Collapse." I've written stories about how the effects of global warming are playing out here in the Carolinas, creating unhealthy urban heat islands, bringing high-tide flooding and beach erosion, and forcing farmers to adapt to saltwater intrusion and sea level rise.

Those hard facts can get you down. But they're also a motivator. As more people grasp what climate change means, they're growing concerned. That's especially true as they see climate change in their daily lives — as storms, wildfires or floods.

If I've learned anything covering climate change in the Carolinas over the past few years, it's that we humans are optimists and have an innate drive to find solutions. As I wind up my assignment as WFAE's climate reporter this month, I'm thinking about what we're doing right.

Don't get me wrong, I'm still deeply concerned, and the outlook is hardly rosy. But the winds of change are strengthening.

Global agreements

The 2015 Paris Agreement was a milestone. The leaders of 196 countries and territories pledged to try and keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius and ideally below 1.5 degrees Celsius. They agreed to issue regular progress reports and to help developing countries financially. Ever since, they've been on a course to refine and implement those goals. This year's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Dubai brought another milestone: the first statement by those leaders that calls for a transition away from fossil fuels. Yes, the compromise was weaker than many had hoped. But we also need to recognize it as progress.

State policies

We North Carolinians are fortunate to live in a state with laws, regulations and policies that aim to reduce emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming. At the beginning of his tenure in 2018, Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order 80, which called for cutting emissions and improving resilience. "It's time for North Carolinians to do our part and take action," he said at the time. Since then, Cooper has expanded and updated the state's efforts with more executive orders addressing environmental justice, electric vehicles and other concerns.

NC's energy transition

Then in 2021, Cooper and Republicans in the General Assembly agreed on a compromise energy reform law known as House Bill 951. It wrote the state's goals into law: cutting carbon emissions from electricity generating plants by 70% from 2005 levels by 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. State regulators are currently evaluating Duke Energy's second "carbon plan," which outlines how Duke plans to shift away from fossil fuels, and close coal and nuclear plants. Duke's plans call for more natural gas-fired plants in the years ahead, which has climate activists worried. Regulators will decide later this year if Duke is moving fast enough.

The state's goals are ambitious. And the Republican-controlled General Assembly has put up roadblocks, such as barring updates to the state's energy conservation code and preventing other initiatives by the governor. But North Carolina is on track for big greenhouse gas reductions in the future. As state Environmental Secretary Elizabeth Biser told me last year, "Those goals have to be met. I don't think we have another choice."

Local climate efforts

Local governments around the state also have their own goals and action plans to address climate change. As I reported last year, the town of Boone worked with its electricity providers to reach 100% renewable energy in town facilities. The city of Morganton has recently been touting its low-carbon credentials, noting that more than 99% of the electricity it distributes is carbon-free — mostly nuclear power with some hydroelectric power.

Local officials are chipping away at the many steps needed to meet their goals. Charlotte, which I've been following the most closely, is making progress toward the goals of the 2018 Strategic Energy Action Plan (SEAP) — zero-carbon energy in city buildings and vehicles by 2030, and a big reduction in per-person carbon emissions across the city by 2050.

State and local climate efforts really come down to the details, and there are barriers. Like figuring out how to replace fossil-fueled electricity with clean energy in a state that bans customers from buying electricity directly from third-party producers. Or industry supply chain issues that hinder electric vehicle purchases and solar development. Cutting carbon emissions means budgeting and planning to replace thousands of vehicles. And it means improving energy efficiency and replacing heating and cooling systems in hundreds of buildings.

Charlotte officials acknowledge they won't meet the 2030 goal, but they're committed to trying.

Shifting to electric vehicles

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions — both globally and locally. (Energy production is second.) That means we can't deal with climate change without big changes in how we get around. The good news is that the electric-vehicle charging network is expanding rapidly in North Carolina and sales of EVs are speeding up. One of those executive orders by Gov. Cooper set an ambitious goal of 1.25 million EVs on state roads by 2030. Right now it's less than 100,000. But as I've reported, EV sales were up 56% this year, as of September. Meanwhile, companies and local governments are converting their fleets to EVs. One disappointment: The General Assembly this year outlawed Cooper's efforts to encourage sales of clean trucks.

Climate anxiety and action

One of the first stories I produced as a climate reporter focused on climate anxiety. It's not (yet) a formal mental health diagnosis, but it describes people who are intensely concerned about climate change and our lagging efforts to address it. It also can describe people who live in areas directly affected by climate disasters, such as rising sea levels, wildfires or more intense storms. The story, and a later WFAE "Charlotte Talks" show on climate anxiety, resonated with readers and listeners.

Climate anxiety has increased in recent years as people see news about climate disasters and learn more about climate change, according to Yale University researchers. But at the same time, we're seeing a new wave of what you might call climate optimism. It's driven by everyone from local activists to global and national leaders — people who believe that we can find solutions and limit the adverse effects of climate change.

North Carolina state climatologist Kathie Dello is among them. "There's still time for us to do something both on the mitigation side to slow the problem down and also on the resilience side. So all hope is not lost. We can imagine a better state. We can imagine better communities that are climate resilient, and climate thriving," Dello told me in an interview for WFAE's 2022 special report "Adapt: Changing Climate in the Carolinas."

[Aside: If you'd like to get plugged in to a climate scientist with a hopeful outlook, I'd recommend Katherine Hayhoe. She's a professor at Texas Tech University and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. She's on all the major social media, writes a newsletter and often turns up as a guest columnist or expert in major news outlets. You can find Hayhoe at]

But what can we do?

Ultimately, we need systems to change to end the primary cause of climate change, which is humans' continued burning of fossil fuels that create the pollution that causes global warming. Advocates like those at Sustain Charlotte say we need to think about not just replacing gas-guzzling cars with electric ones, but about getting rid of cars and using less-polluting modes of transportation. We need to plan our communities differently to reduce the need for individual vehicles, where it makes sense.

"We have failed to invest in more environmentally sustainable forms of transportation that really would make it time-efficient, safe, (and) inviting for people to walk or ride bikes, or ride public transportation or even to carpool," Sustain Charlotte's Meg Fencil told me during this fall's Week Without Driving in Charlotte.

At the same time, we need to rethink our electric system, which relies on large and expensive fossil-fuel-fired power plants. Duke Energy is in a tug-of-war these days with environmental and climate groups over its plans to build a new generation of natural gas-fired plants. The groups are pushing for more solar, wind and batteries. Some want to go further and turn the current centralized energy grid inside out.

Last year, I reported on author Bill Nussey's pitch for a more distributed energy system that prioritizes rooftop solar panels, community solar farms and battery storage. It's the quickest way to adopt clean energy, he said.

"It's faster to build. It's much cleaner. It's much more resilient," Nussey said at the 2022 State Energy Conference in Raleigh. "It's much more innovative. It has free, open, competitive markets, which is a big deal. It creates way more jobs — something both political parties love to see. And it's cheaper."

Individual action

While large-scale climate action is needed, individual efforts are important, too. Asheville-based climate communicator Susan Joy Hassol offers this advice:

"Individually, you can vote for leaders that will take climate action at every single level. Engage in that civic action. Call your leaders, let them know that this is something you care about," Hassol said in the 2022 WFAE climate special, "Adapt."

"You can also volunteer and support groups that are taking climate action. … Fly less, drive less, drive an electric car, or an efficient car. Vote with your dollars, in your banking, in your investments, (and) in your purchases," she said.

Like Hayhoe, Hassol has a can-do approach to climate action. You can find her at

David Boraks previously covered climate change and the environment for WFAE. See more at He also has covered housing and homelessness, energy and the environment, transportation and business.
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