Climate Solutions
News | November 14, 2023

National climate report highlights growing impacts to the Southeast

Urgent investments in local solutions are needed now more than ever as climate impacts grow across the South
Houses built on slab-on-grade foundations, like these pictured in Charleston, are most susceptible to flooding. The latest National Climate Assessment calls for communities across the South to take urgent action to prepare and adapt for extreme weather and a changing climate. (@Brad Nettles/The Post and Courier)

The Fifth National Climate Assessment, released this week by the U.S. Government, reports on the current climate trends, impacts, and solutions across the country, and underscores the urgency and opportunities for meaningful climate action.

This year, it includes a chapter highlighting how climate is impacting our Southeastern landscape and communities, plus what trends we can expect in the years ahead. 

The report substantiates what we’ve been witnessing on the ground: Extreme heatwaves are already more common, sea level rise is encroaching into coastal communities, and throughout the region, we’re seeing more flooding from increasingly unpredictable, volatile storms. According to the report, the country now sees a billion-dollar weather disaster every three weeks on average. In the 1980s, that average was every four months. 

The National Climate Assessment lays the basis for why sound planning to adapt and prepare for climate impacts is so important. The good news is we’re already seeing great strides in adaptation and resilience planning in our region.  

Alys Campaigne, Leader of SELC’s Climate Initative

To preserve our natural resources and communities, we need to aggressively invest in climate solutions and stop the southern gas buildout — the push to expand use of dangerous methane gas in the South — which will put our climate and communities in further risk.  

Local climate leadership  

“Climate action that addresses the impacts reviewed in the report must begin at the local level,” says Alys Campaigne, leader of SELC’s Climate Initiative. “In the South, we’re seeing climate leadership in cities like Nashville and Charleston, and states like South Carolina, developing climate adaptation plans to prepare communities for climate impacts.”

These plans can serve as templates for other communities as we work to ensure they’re meaningfully implemented.   

A stone barrier and fence separate the water from a sidewalk, palm trees and homes.
South Carolina is leading the way in Southern resilience planning.

South Carolina stands out as a leader for the extensive recommendations in its new Statewide Resilience Plan, released in June, that details what policies, resources, and investments are needed to prepare for flooding and other climate impacts. The plan recommends statewide protection of wetlands and other natural systems that help buffer against flooding, and it lays out a roadmap for how local governments can rethink their own land use policy and planning to better adapt to climate hazards.  

The Southeast has historically suffered some of the costliest climate disasters. Development pressure along our vulnerable coastline has been increasing, putting more people in harm’s way. Spending money now on solutions helps protect our communities and save taxpayer money: federal agencies have reported resilience efforts are more cost-effective than recovery efforts on the back end of a disaster. According to the National Institute of Building Sciences, each dollar invested in resilience saves roughly 6 dollars when disaster strikes.  

Urgent need to right environmental injustices  

The Southeast Chapter of the 5th National Climate Assessment zooms in on how the region’s legacy of racial and environmental injustice compounds climate change’s effects and worsens existing inequities. Climate change is an outsized threat for communities already facing development pressures, lack of access to resources, and other systemic social stressors. 

Phillips Community leader Richard Habersham is pictured along Oliver Brown Road in Mount Pleasant. SELC is helping the Phillips Community push back against a harmful highway expansion that would cause flooding and other problems in their historic community. (Photo by Gavin McIntyre)

Inequalities in who faces harm to health — from extreme heat exposure, economic vulnerabilities due to displacement during disasters, lack of access to climate-ready housing or public transit, increased exposure to harmful algal blooms, and weakened food systems and agriculture — are all too prevalent in the South.

For example, in our region, Black communities in the Gullah Geechee corridor and those with heirs’ property or living in historic settlements often live close to flood-prone coastal areas and have often been excluded from access to basic infrastructure and disaster aid. 

“Decades of underinvestment in infrastructure in Black and Brown and low-income communities in the South have left them particularly vulnerable,” says Campaigne. “Adaption planning and federal climate investments must first address these vulnerable communities’ needs.”

Federal investments in climate action  

Federal climate action is working to address the harm caused by climate change and jumpstarting innovative ways to make energy usage more efficient, build more resilient communities, and plan for and mitigate climate risks.   

Landmark climate legislation has accelerated the adoption of clean energy technologies and other infrastructure necessary for a just transition, which puts us closer to our emissions goals. Since the passage of the IRA, a combined $14.8 billion has been invested in clean energy projects in rural communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. More than 9,000 clean energy jobs have also been created in rural communities in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.    

Recent federal funding is helping smaller, rural, and underserved communities and unincorporated areas get the funding and technical support they need to adapt to a changing climate.  

The report is a call to action.

Alys Campaigne, leader of SELC’s Climate Initiative

If we fail to act quickly, it depicts a jarring and dire picture of amplified climate impacts across our region. Thankfully, recent climate action and momentum at federal, state, and local levels, as well as innovation in clean energy technologies, give us cause for hope.

We are driving reductions in emissions and innovating ways to adapt. The climate emergency demands thinking big and acting now — we will continue to use our local and regional expertise to create meaningful solutions at all levels of government.