TOM EARNHARDT: Common ground for healing nation's wounds

Posted January 17, 2021 5:00 a.m. EST

Monarch Butterfly (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Earnhardt has been described as the “steward of North Carolina outdoors.” A lawyer, he pioneered environmental law in the state. He is an avid naturalist and was co-producer of more than 80 episodes of the natural science television series “Exploring North Carolina.” His observations and photos are a regular weekend feature for the coming weeks.

No events of my adult life — including the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, the war in Vietnam and the attack on our country on 11 September, 2001 — have been more gut wrenching than the events of the last two weeks.

With the assault on our nation’s Capitol and an attempt to overturn the results of November’s election, dark forces challenged the very essence of our democracy.

For a few hours on Wednesday, Jan. 6th Washington descended into madness. The faces of rage, racism and anti-Semitism joined forces in the halls of Congress in a spasm of frenzy. Rioters, flying the flags of lost causes, took life, terrified lawmakers and imperiled the peaceful transfer of power. Via television and handheld devices we were all witnesses.

Perhaps the real tragedy is that none of us should have been surprised by what happened. Even before the presidential election results were attacked in multiple states by a now disgraced president and his advocates, the same forces had mounted a withering assault on the independence of our judicial system, doctors and scientists in our public health system and perhaps worst of all, on trust in a free press.

It will take time to heal the wounds in Washington, state capitals, communities, and even within our families. As voters we must now look for strong women and men in leadership positions who know how to use words of reconciliation, humility and civility. Only with such leaders at every level can we strengthen and rebuild the systems and institutions on which we all depend.

I know that it can be argued in this year of domestic strife and a pandemic that we have far greater priorities than environmental issues, and that discussions relating to natural resources can wait. If we are looking for common ground on which to gather and heal, I submit it can be found in the nature. It is in the natural world that the rural and urban divide disappears. In nature each of us is an essential worker.

We tend to forget that nature resources are integral to the success of our economy. As North Carolina grows and seeks new employers, no recruiting tool is more important than quality of life as reflected in clean air, quality water resources, and accessible public lands.

Underlying almost every environmental issue from coastal threats to endangered species is the “elephant in the room” — climate change. Hidden in the news this week was a story that at any other time should have been the headline. Last year, 2020, now infamous for a pandemic and an election crisis, edged out 2016 as the hottest year on record since modern measurements began in the 1800s. The decade from 2011 to 2020 was also the hottest decade on record.

Climate change will dramatically affect North Carolina as we know it unless there is action nationally and internationally to reduce global warming. The change will impact the size and location of barrier islands, the quality of our beaches, agriculture and forestry in low-lying counties, coastal fisheries, and tourism.

Warming temperatures will affect the ability of certain plant species to grow in the Piedmont and mountains, which in turn will affect the insects, birds, and other animals that depend on them. It is often forgotten that many communities of color in North Carolina’s coastal region and in other coastal states will also be disrupted and even displaced by rising seas. Climate change is therefore not just an environmental issue, or a tourism issue, it also has major economic and social justice implications for North Carolina and the nation.

The potential impact of climate change should not be news because we have known of this problem for over three decades. Yet, we have dithered while the planet has warmed. Former NASA physicist Dr. James Hansen warned Congress in the 1980s that unless we began reducing greenhouse gases we would see “shifting climate zones ... erosion of ice sheets, and opening of the fabled Northwest Passage.”

As a result of his warnings a whole new industry of climate-change denial was born. Hansen and other climate scientists were attacked as an alarmists and as people who would destroy the fossil-fuel industry and our economy. Does it sound like something we’ve heard recently when some prominent public health scientists and doctors were criticized and their messages disputed, as they tried to educate us about COVID-19?

Rapidly warming temperatures, melting ice caps, rising seas and opening of the Northwest Passage over the past two decades have now validated the predictions of James Hansen and thousands of other scientists around the world. Climate change is not a theory. The window for action on climate change is now much smaller, but there is still time. We must insist that our leaders work with facts and the best available science data.

Disagreement and spirited discussion on issues relating to the environment, elections, education, taxes, defense, health care, and a free press are part of our strength as a nation. In developing state and national policies we can no longer afford to confuse beliefs and desires with facts. Our beliefs — political, tribal, social, cultural, and religious—may differ, but none of us is entitled to our own facts.

In the coming years America faces daunting challenges in nurturing and preserving a free press, an equitable healthcare system, a forward-looking environmental policy, and an education system worthy of a great nation. More than a half a century ago Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us a timetable for solving these problems: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.“

We know that America is capable of responding when it summons the will. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s dirty air, polluted water, and diminishing numbers of some iconic species brought Americans and political parties together, and saw the introduction of landmark legislation to protect natural resources.

Today, it is difficult to fathom that the Environmental Policy Act passed the United States Senate by a unanimous vote and the House of Representatives by a vote of 372 to 15. When the need was clear, we summoned the will.

This past week we were again confronted by the fierce urgency of now. The solutions to our problems do not lie only in Washington and Raleigh. They can be found in the common ground where words of strength, reconciliation, humility, and civility reside.

EARNHARDT-1 Wild Rivers

EARNHARDT-2 Mountains

The natural world in North Carolina provides the common ground where we can unite around wild rivers and the most extraordinary mountains in eastern America. (Photos 1 and 2)

EARNHARDT-3 Ducks and Swans

EARNHARDT-4 Hummingbird

EARNHARDT-5 Monarch butterfly

Because of our location and our topography, North Carolina will continue to have extraordinary biodiversity. However, with climate change, the migrations of some species of birds (Photos 3 and 4) and insects, like the monarch butterfly (Photo 5), will be disrupted. Some will move to new habitats and some will disappear. By acting now, we can mitigate some of the damage.

EARNHARDT-6 Cape Lookout

EARNHARDT-7 Brunswick beach

Without action soon, climate change will dramatically impact the size and location of North Carolina’s barrier islands and beaches. Coastal landmarks and even communities will be displaced. The barrier islands at Cape Lookout (Photo 6) and the beaches in Brunswick County (Photo 7) will be affected by rising seas.

EARNHARDT-8 Albermarle Peninsula

EARNHART-9 Wetlands forests

Low-lying agricultural areas on the Albemarle Peninsula (Photo 8) and wetland forests just above sea-level (Photo 9) will be in jeopardy because of flooding or salt water incursion.

EARNHARDT-10 Mountain Ash

EARNHARDT-11 Spruce Fir

EARNHARDT-12 Hellers Blaze

Finally, warming temperatures will cause species of plants like mountain ash (Photo 10) and even our spruce/fir forests (Photo 11) to move to higher elevations. Some wildflowers, including Heller’s blazing star (Photo 12), found on a few of our highest mountains, may be lost in North Carolina.

Capitol Broadcasting Company's Opinion Section seeks a broad range of comments and letters to the editor. Our Comments beside each opinion column offer the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about this article.

In addition, we invite you to write a letter to the editor about this or any other opinion articles. Here are some tips on submissions >> SUBMIT A LETTER TO THE EDITOR