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Orange County Set To Levy Historic Climate Tax

Satellite view of the contiguous United States
National Centers for Environmental Information
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Orange County is set to levy a quarter-cent tax on property owners specifically to fight the effects of climate change.

The final budget vote is Tuesday. If approved, it would become the first tax in North Carolina for which the explicit purpose is to fight global warming.

"We've got 10 to 12 years to have significant impact on the crisis, and everyone needs to chip in," said Commissioner Mark Marcoplos, who proposed the tax.

To be sure, governments around the state use property tax revenue for things that could reasonably be said to fight the effects of global warming. Green building practices, energy efficient busses, or any number of other measures reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make energy use more efficient.

"All of those could be viewed as climate change activities that are being funded through the property tax, but this gets more attention because it's a specific line item in the property tax," said Christopher McLaughlin, an associate professor of Public Law and Government at UNC Chapel Hill School of Government, adding that making it a specific line item "highlights the issue."

The tax would be low − $7.50 for the owner of a $300,000 house, and raise less than $470,000 for the county per year. But Marcoplos said he wants to set a standard he hopes other local governments will build on.

"I hope that we will inspire other counties," he said. "I know that a lot of other governments were looking at us to see if we would overcome the stigma of a tax increase and actually pass this. And now that we've shown you can do it, I think we might embolden some others."

N.C. State University climate scientist Walter Robinson endorsed the move and noted that the kinds of projects proposed would actually save the county money in the long run.

However, he added that despite long-term savings, that significant investments in energy infrastructure are needed to convert to a zero-emission energy system.

"This will be expensive," according to Robinson. "If low and moderate income folks aren't held harmless in this process, they will object. This then requires steps to hold down energy costs for these households, be it through increasing their energy efficiency, subsidies, or − most likely − both."

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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