Tecklenburg says response to sea level rise, not climate issues, is his focus

During a "Conversation on Climate Change" talk, hosted by the Coastal Community Foundation, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg acknowledged that protecting the city from sea level rise trumped climate initiatives. David Quick/Staff

The man in charge of preparing Charleston for the effects of sea level rise and climate change didn't downplay what the historic coastal city is facing when he detailed the dire reality to Mayor John Tecklenburg and City Council last month.

"Think about going from 50 days of flooding last year to 180 and what the cost of that is going to be in just 22 short years," said Mark Wilbert, the city's first director of resilience hired earlier this year.

"It’s going to happen quick, and it’s happening right now."

If the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's projections err on the extreme side, the ocean could rise by nearly 2 feet by 2040, putting the southwestern portion of the Charleston peninsula near Colonial Lake under water.

"I just think you’d be foolish not to address flooding, drainage and sea level rise as one of the most serious challenges that this city faces over the next 100 years," Tecklenburg said about a week after Wilbert's presentation.

That's why Tecklenburg endorsed the Paris Climate Agreement when President Donald Trump withdrew his support in June.

He wasn't the only city leader from South Carolina who pledged to carry out its ambitious goals. Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, Greenville Mayor Knox White and Anderson Mayor Terence Roberts also signed the global pact supporting efforts to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Their positions might not be as aggressive or outspoken as other mayors who signed the agreement, such as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio or Miami Mayor Philip Levine. But they sent a bold message that even cities in conservative South Carolina are prepping for a changing environment, with or without support from higher levels of government.

"In South Carolina, acting on things like sea level rise, increasing droughts, floods like in 2015 — it's a bipartisan issue," said Alan Hancock of the Coastal Conservation League. "We see that in a lot of places in South Carolina but especially with the mayors like Mayor Tecklenburg and Mayor Benjamin who are already dealing with the impacts of a changing climate."

He said Columbia is still recovering from the devastating flood in October 2015 that followed one of the most intense rainfalls in modern U.S. history. 

Benjamin has announced plans to transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. He encouraged cities across the country to adopt similar plans at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami in June. 

The city created a punch-list called the Climate Protection Action Plan. Initiatives already underway include installing solar panels on city buildings and more efficient bulbs in street lamps. The city is also calling for more funding of its transit system, COMET. 

Greenville's mayor said his city has been spending about a million dollars annually over the past few years to encourage more people to choose walking and biking over driving for short trips. There's also a new neighborhood trolley that takes residents in and out of the downtown area. 

"That can encourage people not to use their car on weekends," he said.

In general, he said efforts to make Greenville a more environmentally friendly place also align with its mission to create jobs and attract more businesses.

"We think we prove again and again that being attentive to green space and the environment is good for economic development," he said.

While focusing on resilience in Charleston, Tecklenburg has been criticized for not doing enough to reduce the city's impact on the environment. He said it's true his main priority is carrying out Charleston's Sea Level Rise Strategy, but there are other ways he's hoping to shrink the city's carbon footprint.

For instance, experts are assessing the city's energy consumption in government buildings, and he said he plans to continue updating the city's fleet of vehicles with more efficient models. 

All of that is related to scientists' projections the sea level could rise as much as 4 feet in the next 50 years, he said.

"Can the actions collectively of cities and concerned citizens of the world keep that number lower than higher? We hope so, and we join them in trying to do so," he said.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.