In Georgia, Buffeted by Hurricanes and Drought, Climate Change Is on the Ballot

Neither the Rev. Rafael Warnock nor Jon Ossoff has endorsed the Green New Deal. 

But as Georgia has become the political battleground that delivered a surprising but narrow win for President-elect Joe Biden, the Democratic candidates for the state’s two Senate seats are not hiding from the subject of climate change, either.

Ossoff and Warnock, both of whom need to win Jan. 5 runoff elections for the Democrats to control the Senate, both have platforms to address climate change centered around jobs, clean energy and coastal resilience in a state buffeted by intensifying hurricanes, sea level rise, surging heat and increased precipitation.

Ossoff’s opponent, Republican Sen. David Perdue, has said that he realizes the climate is changing, but he has stopped short of saying human activities are the cause. Warnock’s foe, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, avoids the topic entirely. 

But whether they want to talk about climate change or not, and whether climate change even comes up much in races that could go a long way toward determining national climate policy, climate change in some very real sense is on the ballot. 

Just as Covid-19 doesn’t care whether anyone wears a mask, climate change unfolds in spite of political rhetoric, remaking Georgia’s farms, forests and fragile coastal lands, as it dramatically affects what it’s like to live and work in this fast growing Southeastern state.

“Climate change is an ongoing crisis,” said Brionté McCorkle, director of the Georgia Conservation Voters. “It continues to get more urgent as we start to see more extreme weather.”

The threats come in the form of heat deaths, crops lost to drought, storm damage, destruction of natural ecosystems and spreading contamination at some of the nation’s most toxic hazardous waste dumps. 

An investigation into the impact of climate change on 945 vulnerable Superfund sites nationwide, by Inside Climate News, NBC News and The Texas Observer, identified 16 in Georgia that were threatened by increased flooding. Eleven were also prone to damage from intensifying wildfires.

Despite such conditions, and surging Democratic enthusiasm among Blacks, young voters and college-educated whites, Perdue and Loeffler remain focused on playing to voters in the Republican base, claiming that the Green New Deal—a resolution from the Democratic Party’s liberal wing that calls for a massive shift in federal spending to create union jobs, create economic justice and hasten a transition to clean energy by 2050—has socialist underpinnings. 

In a debate on Sunday with Loeffler, a former energy executive, Warnock, the pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, did not bring up climate change and was not asked a question about it, either. 

Ossoff, a former congressional staff member and media executive, appeared on the debate stage by himself Sunday, with Perdue, a former corporate CEO, declining to participate.

Ossoff did not directly answer a question on how he would pay for his climate plans, but said, “It is young people in particular who recognize the threat to our planet. Congress must make massive investments in clean energy.”

Both races are “very, very close,” according to Charlie Cook, the editor of the Cook Political Report, with voters unlikely to split their votes between parties. Ad Age, a publication covering the advertising industry, reported that the campaigns and outside groups have already spent more than $270 million in advertising.

The most recent Yale Climate Opinion Maps show a slight majority of Georgians, accept science that finds that global warming is mostly caused by human activities and that it is affecting weather. 

At the same time, many of the state’s academic institutions are scaling up their research and education on climate change, reaching not only their students but the public at large.

Many Georgians are seeing climate change in a new light, said Daniel Rochberg, the chief strategy officer of Emory University’s climate initiative, and a founder of the Georgia Climate Project. “For so many people, climate change is transitioning from something that is abstract and far off to something that is concrete and current,” he said.

The climate project was founded by Emory University, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia and now involves several other universities. The project is asking and answering two basic questions: What does climate change mean for Georgia, and what can Georgia do about it?

“This network is vital for the state to chart a path on these issues,” Rochberg said. “It is grounded in the state academic institutions and the scientific expertise they bring to bear.”

A separate effort, Drawdown Georgia, taps academic and other expertise to chart a Georgia-specific path to carbon neutrality.

“We are not partisan,” said climate researcher and professor J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program, who is active in both the climate and drawdown projects. “We don’t get into politics. But we have scholarly information when the policy makers are ready to move.”

With assistance from the Georgia Climate Project, here are five ways that climate change is and will affect Georgia and its nearly 11 million residents:

Heat

The Southeast was the slowest region of the country to heat up over the last century, but that’s been changing, threatening more lives. 

Three of the last four years—2019, 2017 and 2016—set records for the warmest years on record in Georgia.

With heat, Shepherd said, “we face a double whammy. Our urban areas are going to experience more heat with global warming, and you couple that with the urban heat island,” a core urban area that’s hotter than surrounding countryside. The heat island, he said, has a greater effect on economically marginalized residents.

Heat is “devastating to the state’s significant low income Black and brown communities, many of whom already pay disproportionately high electricity bills relative to their income,” Rochberg said. “As a result, they may have trouble affording higher air conditioning needs.” 

In rural areas, heat combined with drought threatens the state’s $73 billion agricultural economy, and threatens the health of Georgians who work outside.

Winter has been the fastest warming of the four seasons, which will very likely have repercussions on the state’s iconic peach growing industry, said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist with Climate Central, a New Jersey nonprofit group that analyzes climate data, including at the state and local level. 

“With less chill during the winter, peach trees will have less time to be dormant in the winter, preparing to flower and produce fruit the following season,” he said, adding that “if the trees flower too early and a late winter or early spring freeze occurs, it can damage the crop severely.”

Climate Central found that Atlanta had 27 more days above 90 degrees in 2019 than in 1970.

The Coast

Georgia has only about 100 miles of Atlantic coast, but its entire tidal area of rivers, creeks and barrier islands add up to more than 2,300 miles, according to the Georgia Climate Project.

The ocean has risen more than 10 inches since 1935. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources estimates at least 4 to 6.3 feet of additional sea level rise by 2100.

Roads and neighborhoods are flooded dozens of days a year now on sunny days, just from high tides. That could increase by from 190 to 365 days a year by 2100, said Jill Gambill, a coastal resilience specialist with the University of Georgia, during a recent climate project webinar.

The relentlessly rising ocean threatens drinking water and wastewater systems, roads, buildings, ecosystems and budgets.

“The biggest challenge to local governments will be financing,” J. Scott Pippin, an attorney and planner with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, said during the webinar. “Where is the money going to come from to pay for improvements to their roads, to their wastewater treatment customs, to their drinking water wells?” 

Coastal communities will need to act soon “or they will find themselves spiraling down economically,” he said.

Georgia will also be faced with decisions about where and when to plan strategic retreats from a coast threatened by rising seas.

Hurricanes

Georgia’s direct coastal exposure to hurricanes—the 100 miles along the Atlantic Ocean in the southeast corner of the state—is much less than that of other Southeastern and Gulf states, like North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana or Texas.

But Hurricanes Matthew and Irma in 2016 and 2017 flooded coastal Georgia, with Irma causing widespread damage, according to the National Weather Service.

Gulf storms headed north toward Georgia first slam into the Florida panhandle, which receives their brunt force, before they weaken as they move across land.

But even the panhandle wasn’t enough of a buffer in 2018. Hurricane Michael flattened homes, an Air Force base and forests in the Florida panhandle with its powerful storm surge and 160 mph sustained winds. Then the storm blew into Georgia 100 miles later still as a major hurricane, causing $2.5 billion in damage to the state’s agriculture industry alone. It hit just as cotton, pecans, peanuts and many vegetables were ready to be harvested.

Scientists are now finding that in a warming world, hurricanes may weaken more slowly after they hit land, which means Georgia could be even more threatened along its southern flank.

Hurricanes are also getting wetter, stronger and more dangerous with climate change. With the sea level rising, that means more risk from storm surges and probably more deadly storms, since it’s water, not wind, that kills the most victims of hurricanes or tropical storms.

This year, Hurricane Zeta, the 27th named storm of a record-setting 30-storm Atlantic hurricane season, passed through north Georgia as a tropical storm in October. It knocked down trees, killed three Georgians and left 1 million people without power, according to local media reports.

Ecosystems

Georgia’s biological diversity, from the southern Appalachian Mountains to sandy coastal marshes, is among the greatest in the country. It’s the third-most biodiverse state for fish and the second-most for amphibians, said Carolyn Keogh, an Emory University lecturer during another recent climate project webinar. 

These ecosystems absorb rain, provide drinking water, help clean the air and store carbon, while providing for outdoor recreation.

Georgia also has two-thirds of the remaining intact salt marshes in the eastern United States, which serve as important nurseries for fish and shellfish.

But the ecosystem resources that nature provides to Georgia and Georgians are under stress from development and pollution, as the state’s population grows. Climate change is adding more stress.

As the Atlantic Ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide and becomes more acidic, the shells of oysters and other shellfish are weakened, threatening their survival in the ocean and their place on restaurant menus.

Researchers also believe a disease that reduces shrimp harvest, black gill, may be linked to warming waters.

Warming inland waters threaten freshwater fish like trout and darters, while wetlands are threatened by drought.

It adds up to an uncertain future, according to the climate project. Some plants or animals may be able to move as ecosystems change, but there will be limits to how far some can go, probably resulting in extinctions.

Precipitation

Thirteen years ago, a drought in Georgia was so severe, the then governor, Sonny Perdue, tapped his faith in a bid for rain.

Atlanta was worried it would run out of water, and Perdue, who since 2017 has been President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, conducted a very public prayer for precipitation.

“I’m here today to appeal to you and to all Georgians and all people who believe in the power of prayer to ask God to shower our state, our region, our nation with the blessings of water,” Perdue said at the time.

“We come here very reverently and respectfully to pray up a storm,” Perdue told the more than 250 people who attended.

Exactly how global warming may be affecting rainfall and drought in Georgia has been hard for scientists to ascertain. But a picture is starting to emerge of a state that appears to be experiencing more intense rainstorms and more frequent droughts.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment found that for the Southeast region, including Georgia, there was an upward trend in the number of days with more than 3 inches of rain. In Georgia, that report identified a downward trend near the state’s northern mountains, but an upward trend in south Georgia, said Rochberg.

He noted that when the Metropolitan North Georgia Water Planning District did its 2015 Utility Climate Resiliency Study, it estimated that by 2050, one-day extreme rainfall depths could be from 5 to 10 percent higher.

University of Georgia’s Shepherd, his students and co-researchers have identified flooding as an increased risk in places like Atlanta, Savannah and Macon.

A Georgia climate vulnerability assessment Shepherd wrote with two co-authors found that the frequency of flooding had “spiked in recent decades.” 

In Fulton County, for example, which includes Atlanta, four floods were recorded in the 10-year period from 1975 to 1984, compared to 16 floods recorded in the eight-year period from 2005 to 2012, they found.

“Flooding is not just a function of what falls from the sky, but when you have more intense rains falling on more urban settings, it increases and overwhelms” stormwater management systems, Shepherd said.

There are also indications that droughts are increasing, threatening agriculture as well as drinking water in a state that’s been wrestling with its neighbors over water supplies.

By one measure, the federal government’s Palmer Hydrological Drought Index, there have been four times in the last two decades when the state was in extreme drought, said Sublette, the meteorologist with Climate Central. That only happened five times in the previous 70 years, he said.

“My concern is that when droughts do occur, they will be worse and have a greater impact,” he said. “A warmer atmosphere evaporates more moisture out of the soil. The population of Georgia is increasing, presenting greater challenges for water management.”

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