Equity and Adaptation in a Changing Climate: The UNC Climate Change Resilience Symposium

“If you had a town of 50,000 burned to the ground and hundreds of people killed by terrorists, do you think we would have done something about it by now?” It’s a provocative question, one of many raised at last month’s Climate Resilience Symposium. The person asking the question was Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney of the US Marine Corps, and, perhaps surprisingly, he was talking about climate change. Specifically, he was discussing last year’s wildfires that devastated the town of Paradise, CA and the inability of our political system to come to terms with the immense security and economic threat posed by climate change.

The UNC Climate Change and Resilience Symposium is an annual event at UNC organized by the Carolina Resilience Hazard Planners and Carolina Climate Scientists and hosted by the Gillings School of Public Health. The event brings together community activists, practitioners, and scholars from around the Triangle region to discuss the impacts of climate change as well as the challenges and opportunities in addressing it in North Carolina and beyond.

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Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney, Keynote Speaker. Source: Josh Kastrinsky.

The day’s activities kicked off with General Cheney’s key note address. Retired from the Marines, General Cheney is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the American Security Project, a nonprofit policy and research organization founded by John Kerry to address underappreciated threats to national security like climate change. The goal of General Cheney’s address was to highlight both the direct impacts of climate change to military bases and infrastructure, as well as its indirect role in prompting widespread migration and political destabilization. Cheney presented Lake Chad in central Africa as a classic example. The lake has lost 90% of its water since 1973, driving a regional migration network, which terrorist organization Boko Haram has taken advantage of for active recruitment. Similarly, analysts project that one to two feet of sea level rise could prompt the relocation of 20-30 million refugees from Bangladesh, many of whom are expected to end up in Indonesia, which has a large ISIS footprint. On the home front, Cheney discussed the impacts of sea level rise and extreme weather on Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval base, and on North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, which he described as a “blue tarp city” following Hurricane Florence. Similarly, Tyndall Airforce base in Florida, one of the nation’s most important training bases, is expected to take at least five years to come back online following Hurricane Michael. But “why would you possibly put it in the same spot?” Cheney asked regarding Congress’s decision to rebuild Tyndall rather than relocate it to a lower-risk area. According to Cheney, the military gets it. They see the risk climate change poses and the opportunities in adaptation and mitigation activities. It’s up to us as voters, he stressed, to get our politicians on the same page.

After Cheney’s keynote and an engaging student poster session over lunch, there were two afternoon panels. The first – Climate Change Adaptation: Communities at a Crossroads – featured four experts on climate adaptation and planning in North Carolina. They discussed local climate resilience assessment projects and how to integrate local planning with regional, state, and federal efforts. Two recurring themes were the challenge of getting local government to understand the urgency of climate change and the tension between private property, individual choice, and public interest. As Stewart consultant, Jay McLeod, argued, when it comes to coastal development, we need to get “a place where the cost burden isn’t borne externally and a place where people actually understand their risk.” Key takeaways from the panel included recognizing the need for transformation in the existing climate change response approach and greater representation and diversity in the decision-making and planning process. Jessica Whitehead of North Carolina Sea Grant perhaps said it best: “adaptation just requires doing things differently.”

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UNC PhD student, Amanda Martin, presenting at the first panel session. Source: Josh Kastrinsky.

Another thread through the entire afternoon was the issue of equity. When discussing existing land use strategies for reducing risk in the first panel, UNC PhD student, Amanda Martin, reminded the audience that the US has a “long history of forcing people to move for the ‘greater’ good” and discussed how our current adaptation strategies “continue to perpetuate structures of inequality.” That conversation continued into the second panel – Striving for Equity in the Face of a Changing Climate – with North Carolina State Professors Kofi Boone and Ryan Emanuel, both of whom sought to complicate and reframe the existing narrative around climate change and vulnerable communities. Professor Boone argued that it’s chronic stressors and underlying issues, like racism and poverty, which drive vulnerability and which our current adaptation strategies fail to address. A large part of the problem, he stated, is that poor black communities on the coastal plain of North Carolina are “feeling the impact of our bad development decisions” up in the wealthier Triangle region. However, that same history of exclusion has created a strong attachment to place and valuable social ties in many black communities that make relocation difficult. Dr. Emanuel, an enrolled member of the Lumbee tribe, addressed similar issues as they relate to native communities. He explored the Lumbee’s historical connection to the land and the tribe’s history of migration in response to environmental conditions AND forced displacement. Those experiences, he argued, make the Lumbee particularly vulnerable to climate change. However, they also make the Lumbee uniquely positioned to address it IF decision makers better recognize and incorporate indigenous knowledge and expertise in environmental justice and climate adaptation efforts.

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North Carolina State Professors Kofi Boone and Ryan Emanuel discussing equity and climate change during the second panel session. Source: Josh Kastrinsky.

Both speakers on the second panel argued that our current paradigm, reflected in the existing strategies and narratives adopted around climate change adaptation, focuses on rational decision making at the individual level. However, that paradigm ignores community-level social forces that can limit mobility or, on the flip side, create social capital that can help generate innovative forms of resilience. In addition, our current paradigm too often focuses on cities or high-income coastal areas, ignoring rural communities like those found in the North Carolina coastal plain. As Professor Boone stressed, “we need to evolve a different unit of organization” in our hazard mitigation and disaster recovery efforts.

The final panelists closed the productive day of conversations and learning with a few key tips for working on these sensitive and timely issues, particularly in vulnerable communities:

  • Know when (and even if) to get involved
  • Listen, build relationships, and be willing to put in the time
  • Don’t go in looking for certain things or treating the exchange like an extractive process
  • Marry social issues like poverty that people relate to and experience on a day-to-day basis to conversations around adaptation and climate change


Featured Image: Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney, keynote speaker, presenting to the attending audience. Source: Josh Kastrinsky.

About the Author: Leah Campbell is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of City and Regional Planning, where she focuses on integrating equity and resilience into climate adaptation to address urban flooding. Prior to UNC, she worked in the environmental nonprofit sector in California after receiving her B.S. in Geophysics and Environmental Science from Yale in 2015. Outside of academics, Leah enjoys folk music, long road trips, and anything that gets her outside.