Worsening flooding is one example of the observable impacts of climate change | File photo by Jonathan Boneck

Rising Up

Charleston-area governments have drawn up policies and resolutions they hope will alleviate some of the effects of climate change, but few have tackled the heart of the issue.

City of Charleston leaders are currently working to update their climate action plan, starting with what Director of Sustainability and Deputy Resilience Officer Katie McKain called a robust community engagement process throughout 2020. 

Community volunteers split into groups with a wide range of representation from leaders, advocates and business owners have been meeting all winter, drafting recommendations that were just released last week for public input ahead of Wednesday’s meeting.

“All the things the groups are working with have a host of great benefits for the community,” McKain said. “Protecting saltwater ecosystems, for example, serves a major flood-mitigation technique, which comes with great economic benefits itself.”

Alongside preservation of local ecosystems, groups focused on efficient home energy, increased composting efforts and ways to embrace electric vehicle technology. City officials say more than 25% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from vehicles, and more than 64% come from buildings relying on inefficient fuel sources for electrical power. 

Greenhouse gases have tipped the healthy balance of carbon dioxide levels worldwide, NASA reports have shown. Carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere have been rising consistently for decades, trapping heat near the surface of the planet, corresponding with increased temperatures and rising sea levels.

“We see the effects of climate change first-hand,” McKain said. “Just look at all the flooding just [last week] after an hour of rain.”

Embracing electric vehicles is one area that the city has already taken concrete steps toward, having applied for a grant last week that would replace the first of the city’s garbage trucks with an all-electric model. The trucks are hugely inefficient, McKain said, as they run all day and consume a lot of fuel.

But, few initiatives have taken shape yet, and exact numbers and tangible goals are difficult to see.

“There are a lot of pieces we’ve been working on, but ultimately, before you can really focus on the pieces, they need to be a part of a plan that the community supports and the city supports,” McKain said. “At the end of the day, we really need the community to help implement the plan; we can’t do this alone.” 

Charleston County Council passed its own climate action resolution March 9, putting its support of climate-focused education and advocacy in writing. Though there is no required action spelled out in the resolution, it leaves space for future county-level plans to be put in place, local leaders say, and claims to support climate-centric measures at local levels.

“Without proper planning, the adverse impacts of climate change could exhaust and destabilize our infrastructure and emergency and social services; negatively impact our access to food, water and energy; and disrupt commerce, local business, property and our quality of life,” the resolution reads.

But County Councilman Kylon Middleton, who proposed the measure, said there is more concrete language in the resolution than people realize.

“It talks about the implementation of an equity-centered-community-integrated climate action plan,” he said. “That becomes the next step — getting community-oriented groups from all sectors to be able to develop and implement their own climate action plan.”

Municipalities throughout the Lowcountry stand to gain from county support for addressing climate change, with coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels, increased rates of natural disasters and climbing temperatures.

“Higher sea levels equate to more instances of sunny day flooding that damages infrastructure and homes, prevents emergency access and causes disruptions to daily life,” said Folly Beach City Administrator Aaron Pope. “Higher sea levels also mean storm surges will be higher, more destructive and more damaging.” 

Traditionally, the focus on long-term planning and infrastructure improvement for Folly Beach has been geared toward the beachfront, Pope said. But, continued changes have drawn attention to the marshside of the island as well — and the beach town is just one of the local governments working to get a handle on the impacts of climate change. 

“Folly has been working hard at a local level to plan for the future and begin taking steps to put our plans into action,” Pope said. “County level leadership would have multiple benefits, including opening the door to a more regional, coordinated approach, funding and on the ground support for projects, and broadening public awareness.”

But as the threat has grown, and leaders consider further action, Pope worries efforts may have fallen behind. 

“I think there are many people in the county that are not fully aware of the scope of the changes that are happening and how they translate into practical effects on everyday life,” he said.

And, the changes have only just begun to take shape.

“Houses that didn’t flood will flood, roads will be blocked, essentially facilities may need to be moved,” Pope said. “There are a lot of ways that life is going to change, and I think the earlier and more often that message gets out, the better prepared people will be.”