Over the past decade, the North Carolina coast has been on the frontlines of climate change. Saltwater intrusion, floods, and record-breaking hurricanes have slammed the region, damaging its crops, homes, and infrastructure. Yet despite the changes, the state passed a bill banning the use of a scientific report on sea level rise, and environmental reporters lost jobs.
Mark Hibbs, editor of Coastal Review Online (CRO), explains how “With the shrinking and downsizing of the newspaper industry, environmental reporters were among the first to be let go in North Carolina. So it created a void that needed to be filled.” Hibbs and the CRO team helped fill that gap with their Pulitzer Center-supported project “Changing Minds on Climate Science,” a multipart series that dives into the ongoing effects of climate change on eastern North Carolina and its residents.
The project is part of the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines initiative, which looks to “support smaller, regional news [publications] in U.S. coastal regions that face the impacts of climate change,” according to Pulitzer Center Senior Strategist Steve Sapienza.
“We were drawn to this particular reporting project because it focused on how attitudes toward climate science in eastern North Carolina have changed during the past decade,” Sapienza adds. “To outsiders this might not seem like a big deal, but even small changes in how people think about climate science can alter the course in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. So we felt it was very important to support local reporters who wanted to explore this topic further as it relates to their coastal community, which they did in a terrific nine-part series of stories from around the region.”
The following is an edited transcript of a Q&A between Hibbs and Pulitzer Center General Intern Ethan Ehrenhaft, which focuses on the origins, impact, and challenges behind the project. Portions of the text have been revised for clarity and/or length.
Ethan Ehrenhaft: What inspired CRO to begin the Changing Minds on Climate Science project and what issues did you all seek to address under the Pulitzer Center's broader Connected Coastlines initiative?
Mark Hibbs: The spark for it was the approaching 10-year mark of the state's first sea level rise report, which was in 2010. It was a report that was met with resistance on the part of the state legislature, and [the legislature] received national attention for "trying to outlaw sea level rise." North Carolina kind of became seen as science deniers as a result of that legislative push against the science report. Since that time, there's been a change in leadership, the switch from a Republican governor to a Democratic governor, both of whom have faced opposition from the state legislature, power struggles, and that sort of thing. So approaching that 10 year mark and then on the heels of three major hurricanes hitting the North Carolina coast—Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Florence in 2018, and Dorian in 2019— those things all came together.
The response at the state and local level to those three storms, it all pointed to the need for a look back and a look at where we are now. Hurricane Dorian put us behind schedule in getting this package together, and then the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown only delayed us further. But as it turned out, the timing worked out well for us because just as our series was getting rolling the state released its official plan for climate resilience, a first of its kind of plan. That came out as the series was spooling out and we were able to wrap that into our reporting as well.
EE: Could you talk a little bit more about what changes the project has revealed or uncovered in North Carolinians' perceptions of climate change since that initial 2010 report? What have been some of the biggest shifts you've seen?
MH: I think, as our reporting indicates, that generally people are a lot more receptive to learning about climate science and to accepting it. I think Hurricane Florence and Dorian in particular shifted some attitudes. As we reported in some of our stories in the series, people see these changes, but they don't always think of it as sea level rise or climate change. They have other explanations for what's going on. But the fact is they see the changes happening. The result of that is there is some action. I think another thing that I learned is that despite North Carolina's notoriety for being, say, a climate science denying state, for lack of a better term, there have been efforts, particularly at the local level, to address these issues. Those have been going on since even before 2010.
EE: The project launched on your site by soliciting essays from North Carolina high schoolers about their experiences during Hurricane Florence. I was curious about that, why did you all choose this approach?
MH: I think it was just a matter of representing different perspectives. I think it would have been easy for us to just go to the old timers or go to whatever demographic you might pick as far as the general public. But in terms of thinking towards the future, and the people who are going to have to deal with these issues, even more seriously than it's being dealt with now, it's the younger generations, it's the next generation coming up. So that was the thinking behind bringing younger voices into this discussion.
EE: One of your articles had a photo of a "ghost forest" (a forest affected by saltwater intrusion) that had been taken from a plane. I was wondering if you could talk briefly about that experience, what reporting from the air was like, and how it helped you approach the story?
MH: It does give you a unique perspective because you really see how in eastern North Carolina water surrounds everything, and just how vulnerable so many structures are. So many highways, bridges, infrastructure, public water systems, private wells, crop lands, and forest lands — we're seeing those change. The crop lands and forest lands are being inundated with saltwater and it's changing the plant life, it's killing off forests. Land that was once high and dry is turning into marshland. It's pretty plain to see when you fly over eastern North Carolina.
EE: How do coastal residents generally react to questions about rising sea levels? Is there a reluctance to talk about it or do they blame any factors other than climate change?
MH: I don't think there's a reluctance to talk about it so much as it is the latter. I think folks have their different explanations. There are those who flat out say it's not happening, or if it is happening, it's not caused by human activity, or if it is caused by human activity and it is happening, it's not as big a threat as scientists say it is. You're still going to meet resistance here. We're still seeing that. But I think overall, there has been a shift in attitudes.
EE: What are some general takeaways you hope readers have from the Changing Minds on Climate Science project? What has the reception been like so far, especially in eastern North Carolina?
MH: I hope folks see that homes and life here on the coast are threatened by sea level rise and the changes that we're seeing. It's going to require a different approach, it's going to require more long-term thinking and planning, and more vigilant enforcement of coastal policy. North Carolina has a pretty effective system for enacting and enforcing coastal policy. I think the importance of that is going to become even clearer as we move forward.
In terms of reception, I think the series has been well received. We certainly get feedback from the educational institutions and the scientists and the museum curators and people that we've reached out to in putting together these stories. Their networks have helped amplify our reach in getting these stories out. We've had at least one request to put all these stories into a print version of some sort. That may be something that we explore at some point.