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SC keeps trying to build its way out of climate change — but it might be missing the point

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Floodwaters inundate Ashley Avenue in the heart of Charleston's medical district in June 2018. The Medical University of South Carolina campus routinely floods, an issue the health system's president said required "urgently needed funding" in a letter to Gov. Henry McMaster in February. File/Staff

South Carolina is grappling with the symptoms of climate change, but its efforts to tackle the causes have been slower.

After four floods in four years, most leaders have zeroed in on that problem: Charleston's mayor has called flooding an existential threat to the city, while Gov. Henry McMaster formed a Floodwater Commission to address the problem around the state. 

But less explicit is the other side of the equation: the planet-warming carbon emissions that the vast majority of scientists agree are making extreme weather worse. 

Public opinion in the state still lags behind scientific consensus. Only 3 percent of state residents said they didn't believe in climate change at all, per a Winthrop poll at the end of last year. But only about three-quarters of the Winthrop poll respondents said they believed human activity contributed, in part or in whole, to warming. 

Dealing with carbon emissions often comes in the form of other initiatives, such as legislation passed this year designed to expand solar power generation. It was mostly touted by supporters as a form of economic development.

Besides public perceptions, emissions are a challenging problem to address because of their global nature, said Laura Cantral, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League.

“Part of the problem with climate change and addressing it from the kind of public standpoint is it's overwhelming, and people feel like there’s nothing they can do as individuals because the problem is too big,” Cantral said.

But Cantral said climate issues, including emissions reductions, are woven into every one of CCL's initiatives. And many environmental advocates see state and local action as more important than ever, as the current presidential administration rolls back environmental standards and scuttles scientific work tracking climate change.

"(There's) so much that can be done at a state level and so much that can be done at a city level," said Stephen Roe, with the Center for Climate Strategies. "Every one of those jurisdictions has different capabilities when it comes to addressing the problem."

While Charleston and Columbia have signed various pledges, the state lacks a unified climate plan. A spokesman for McMaster's office declined to respond to questions about whether the governor had goals for emissions reductions or whether the state should have a plan addressing the causes of climate change. 

Meanwhile, neighbors like North Carolina are setting broad goals to expand renewable energy and electric vehicle use.

Even the best-laid plans are useless if they're ignored, however, something that's happened before in the Palmetto State.

'A more reasonable footprint'

In the mid-2000s, planning for a clean energy transition was a hot topic on both sides of the aisle: Both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama touted clean energy initiatives during the 2008 presidential campaign. 

South Carolina also joined in the conversation, as both the state and city of Charleston kick-started committees focused on reducing the environmental impact of government and residents. But both plans have been effectively shelved for the last decade.

Roe, who worked on the state's plan, said many initiatives from that era met a similar fate: The financial crisis starting in 2008 put much of the work on hold, and renewable sources of energy were more expensive 10 years ago. 

Charleston's Green Committee, and the plan it compiled, was a wide-ranging effort involving hundreds of people.

"We really did think we were going to be on the forefront of leading Charleston to a lighter, more reasonable footprint, with everybody doing their share," said Carolee Williams, a former city planner who worked closely with the committee.

But when the Green Plan was presented to City Council in 2009, it was met with protests both from climate skeptics and a nascent tea party. The council ultimately voted to "receive" the document, but it didn't enact it.

Katie McKain, Charleston's director of sustainability, said that the Green Plan does "inspire and inform our work, and we look forward to updating it in the next few years."

At the state level, then-Gov. Mark Sanford convened his own panel in 2007 to look at how clean power and conservation could be expanded in the state.

It targeted a modest 5 percent emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2020, but even that recommendation was largely ignored when it was finalized in 2008. 

A year later, construction began on what was seen as the state's best bet at long-term, emissions-free energy: the V.C. Summer nuclear plant.

But that project eventually became a failed boondoggle, as costs and construction timelines exploded and the two state utilities halted work. 

Santee’s solar opportunity (copy)

Solar panels are installed to the rooftop of a home in Mount Pleasant. File/Staff

'I'll take what I can get'

Leaders of the two biggest cities in the state have signed wide-ranging climate pledges in recent years. 

In 2017, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg joined 406 other municipal leaders in pledging to uphold the spirit of the Paris Climate Agreement.

"We’re getting a double whammy," Tecklenburg told the Post and Courier. "We’re seeing directly the impacts of this world change, of this climate change, and having to deal with it on the front end (with flooding), so it only makes sense we do our best to participate to make some impact on the long-term effect and situation."

The city's efforts so far have included hiring a consultant to reduce electricity and water use in city buildings and rezoning the upper peninsula to encourage walkable development and green-energy use. 

All together, the city has committed to an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. Charleston doesn't have a public site tracking the progress of that pledge, but McKain said that a web page with those details is in the works. 

In Columbia, the city committed to the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign in 2017. The commitment means transitioning to 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2036. 

But Columbia has long been a part of another pledge: the Climate Protection Action Campaign, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which the city's mayor, Steve Benjamin, chairs. Columbia signed on to that campaign in 2006, before he was elected. 

According to a progress report from last month, Columbia had completed just 14 of 88 action items in that plan.

Mary Pat Baldauf, who has directed sustainability efforts in Columbia for 11 years, concedes that progress on pledges can be slow. She often encourages city staffers to make greener choices, but they have other needs to consider. 

"When you’re looking at a budget and trying to figure out where you’re going to spend your money, are you going to spend a little more on say, a Prius, or are you going to spend it on other needs?" she said.

There are some promising steps. Columbia recently began to study the possibility of a solar farm at its municipal sewer plant, an idea that has been batted around for years. 

And the Soda Cap Connector, a free bus that runs between Columbia's entertainment districts, is becoming more popular.

"I want solar on every roof, I want everybody riding the bus, I want everybody to recycle everything they can, but I’ll take what I can get," Baldauf said.

State efforts vary 

Meanwhile, several states are crafting their own climate standards.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed an executive order at the end of last year, setting several goals for the state: reducing emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels and registering 80,000 electric vehicles in the state by 2025, among other proposals.

Importantly, the order required a publicly-accessible online portal so that the public can track progress on these goals.

While McMaster's office was silent on putting together a plan in South Carolina, his spokesman did point to energy efficiency standards for state buildings, implemented in 2008.

Public entities across the state met that goal last year, according to a state report, though the standard was only a 20 percent reduction in energy use from 2000 levels. 

Brian Symmes, the governor's spokesman, also highlighted the S.C. Energy Freedom Act, legislation implemented this year to set a framework for the expansion of solar power. 

Advocates supporting that law emphasized that a growing solar industry could bring new jobs, spur energy cost savings and help diversify the economy. That business-development messaging was a strategic choice for the League as is supported the legislation, Cantral said. 

But Heather Pohnan, who recently authored a report on decarbonization for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said that states need to target carbon-based energies for elimination if they're eventually going to transition away from them.

That transition is happening slowly across the Southeast, she said.

"A lot of the states aren’t taking decarbonization into their policy-planning process," Pohnan said. "The policies have kind of a side effect of decarbonization if they're valuing solar."

Meanwhile, the Energy Freedom Act is a promising start for South Carolina's growing solar industry, Pohnan said, but it's unclear how effective it will be. Regulators won't set rates that large-scale solar producers will receive until November.

“We need to just keep the pressure on and hold our officials’ feet to the fire," Cantral said.

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Reach Chloe Johnson at 843-735-9985. Follow her on Twitter @_ChloeAJ.

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