Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding a stronger South Carolina. But the governor’s task force and legislative panels looking at policy changes are missing an even bigger crisis already underway: catastrophic climate change.

South Carolina joined the world in halting much of its economy for the past two months to slow infections from the coronavirus pandemic. The unprecedented shutdowns will likely lead to record declines in air pollution and carbon emissions, though only temporary and with terrifying human repercussions.

“This is absolutely not the reason why we want to see these types of reductions,” said Alan Hancock, energy and climate advocacy director for Coastal Conservation League.

But Hancock and others say there are ways to make an even bigger, more permanent impact and grow the economy.

There is precedent for governmental climate action in the wake of economic upheaval, College of Charleston environmental policy professor Matt Nowlin said. Remember Cash for Clunkers and green energy investments after the Great Recession? That helped fund Clemson’s North Charleston wind turbine testing center, according to Nowlin. Today, the facility is one of the advantages the state has in the burgeoning offshore wind industry.

Conservation Voters of South Carolina Executive Director John Tynan warned against “doubling down on old and outdated” industries in the recovery, saying the state needed to “shift the paradigm.”

“If we change the technology we use to travel, change the technology we use to make energy, we can have our cake and eat it too,” Tynan said. “As we’re looking at how we rebuild and jumpstart the economy, we have a unique opportunity to rebuild in the direction we see the future demanding.”

Here are some of the suggestions put forward:

Electric vehicle infrastructure. The state should invest in and remove any barriers to an electric vehicle system that would dovetail with the state’s existing automotive industry, Tynan said. Such a system would offer electric vehicle charging stations throughout the state, allowing drivers to go farther without fear of being unable to charge.

Clean energy jobs. State policy should put an emphasis on clean-energy jobs, Tynan said. South Carolina was poised for solar growth after the 2019 Energy Freedom Act was passed, but now it could be facing a 24 percent decline in development, resulting in 1,325 lost jobs in the state, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Electricity goal setting. The state should set goals for electricity generation sources, Nowlin said. This is common practice in other states and is usually aimed at getting private utilities to ramp up solar and wind energy generation. “That’s low-hanging fruit here in South Carolina … that would accelerate some of these trends we are already seeing,” Nowlin said.

More work-from-home. Employers, including the state, should continue to keep as many workers home as possible, Nowlin said. Fewer emission-belching commuter cars on the roads could be “one thing that might persist” following the pandemic, Hancock said.

We can’t limit our recovery thinking to short-sighted economic and public health interests. Rising waters and temperatures will have a longer-term impact on all aspects of life than this pandemic. Now is the time to get to work.

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