Hurricane Florence was a perfect example of how climate change supercharges extreme weather events. But climate change also affects us in other more subtle, interconnected, and difficult to manage ways. Thankfully, people like June Blotnick, Executive Director of environmental advocacy group Clean Air Carolina, are working on the ground to help communities battle climate change. Miles sits down with June to learn more about how the average citizen can move the needle on these issues on this most recent episode of Miles To Go.
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Miles O’Brien: Hello! Welcome to another edition of Miles To Go, I’m Miles O’Brien.
As Hurricane Florence swept ashore in North Carolina in mid-September, my team and I were putting the finishing touches on a project that explored the impact of climate change on the Tar Heel state.
A nonprofit environmental advocacy organization called Clean Air Carolina approached us earlier this year about doing a series of videos showing how average North Carolinians are dealing with climate change. We loved the idea, and worked together through the summer to come up with 5 short videos–and you can watch them on their website, cleanaircarolina.org. All one word: cleanaircarolina.org.
A little bit behind the scenes: we did change the endings of a few of those pieces last minute to include Hurricane Florence. That devastating storm was a perfect example of how climate change is affecting people right now, not in some distant future or in some distant place.
That point was underscored with the recent dire report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Twelve years is all we have before things become irreversibly bad on our planet! We simply have to take some serious action for our children and their children.
We thought a deeper discussion of the climate change impacts–and how to mitigate them–would be of interest… We hope it is! So, I sat down with June Blotnick, Executive Director of Clean Air Carolina.
Miles O’Brien: June, thank you so much for joining me. You are doing great work to protect the environment in North Carolina. And as we have witnessed recently, the environment in North Carolina has taken quite a beating. Just give us a few words about what it’s been like living through Florence. I know Charlotte wasn’t exactly in the bullseye of the storm but this is a close-knit state and you have a lot of people all over the state who are part of your network. How did everybody fare?
June Blotnick: It was pretty frightening at the beginning because the forecast kept changing and we weren’t sure about our friends in Wilmington, our friends in Robeson County. I actually was in Wrightsville Beach the week before it hit. So, when I was there, everything was very calm, it was a beautiful weekend and then six days later, the story changed.
So, we would email our contacts, wouldn’t hear back from them. We kept hearing about power going out, people couldn’t get in and out of Wilmington after a few days, but eventually, we did hear from our friends down there and they were okay.
Miles O’Brien: It’s interesting, you can talk about climate change all day long, and now, you’ve really seen the effects. The effects literally came home in a very significant way. This is a storm that stalled out. There’s lots of research out there that says basically the steering currents which drive all weather, including hurricanes, are slowing down because of climate change. Basically, the temperature is in the polar regions are arising more quickly. It’s the difference in temperature that drives those currents that means, the currents are not as strong. So you’ve lived climate change in a very profound way here. How in any way might that change the way you and your team do you work?
June Blotnick: When we first started the organization 13 years ago, it was all about air pollution. For North Carolinians, almost all the counties in this state meet the federal standards for air pollution, for ozone and particle pollution. So, our work has changed just in those 13 years about what should we focus on? And what we’ve chosen to focus on is hyper local air pollution through our monitoring program and seeing — helping people see exactly what they’re breathing. And then the other thing is, climate change. There’s no way to get around that. So, we really are concerned about our coastline, the wildfires that we’ve had in the state, the extreme drought that we’ve had over the years, and the health impacts that are forecasted for our state.
So, we’ve been doing a lot of work with scientists here in the state, with medical professionals and others to try to get the word out to the rural areas. We’re a very big state. We have a hundred counties. Really we’re in a state of adaptation and resiliency.
Miles O’Brien: Climate change, there is no more important environmental issue. But you’re a small organization with roots in keeping the air clean. Do you hesitate to try to fight all of these battles? It’s hard because there’s so many issues to confront.
June Blotnick: There really are and every nonprofit goes through this. There’s always mission creep and it’s hard to juggle a lot of things. But even with rural industries in North Carolina that are spewing awful pollution that’s unregulated. We can’t say no to that. We have to go where people need us and where health and the environment are threatened.
It’s a balancing act. But luckily, in North Carolina, we have so many great partners. There are so many other organizations. We have the EPA here, we have universities, and so we’re fortunate to all work in partnership and that’s going to make a huge difference as we address climate change.
Miles O’Brien: That sounds little bit like you’re finding a silver lining in the hurricane storm because I do know that historically, the state of North Carolina does not exactly–well, at least the political leaders don’t have a stellar track record in recognizing and dealing with climate change. As a matter of fact, you could put this in the state collectively at least at the government level in the denial category at least officially. How much of a struggle has that been just to get people to face facts?
June Blotnick: It’s been a struggle over the last eight years since our legislature changed and we’ve got the majority in there who are doing everything they can to dismantle our previously really good history of environmental protection. It has been rough been playing defense but I was just up in the mountains for a meeting with 30 organizational representatives from the environmental community, and we talked about Florence, we talked about climate change, we talked about climate justice. And we’re looking forward to midterm elections. But the other thing we talked a lot about was how our legislature over the last eight years has really reduced funding for the Division of Air Quality, Division of Water Quality.
So, they really don’t have the capacity to deal with these kinds of storms. This is the second 500 year storm we’ve had in two years. So, we as the environmental community feel a need to really assist them in addressing these threats.
Miles O’Brien: What does it take to change a mindset that would look at two 500 year storms in two years and say, “Oh, that’s nothing.” Put their head in the sand. How do you change people’s view when they’re so entrenched?
June Blotnick: Legislators in Eastern North Carolina, it’s going to be really hard for them to continue on the track of climate change isn’t real.
Because their constituents are experiencing it every day, and they’re not even recovered from Matthew from two years ago. It’s so expensive that I don’t think they have much of a choice and the people will demand action. There is no question about it. People are getting tired of rebuilding after these storms and these people aren’t wealthy people in Eastern North Carolina.
Miles O’Brien: Well, you’ve been fighting this battle for a long time. I’ve been covering this for years and years, and if I had to put a silver lining on all of this, and it’s kind of a dark view of it, but the fact that it’s finally happening to people might precipitate change, finally. It’s not just the polar bear on an ice cube somewhere, it’s something that’s affecting me. I guess, the real question we have to ask is, “Are we too late?”
June Blotnick: Well, yeah, and we don’t know if we’re too late. Even if we are too late, we still have to fight. We have to fight to change the energy system in North Carolina. We just have such a great opportunity with the wind power and the solar power and offshore wind. We’re second in the country for most installed solar. So, there’s a great deal of intersectionality between issues, of course. So we are partnering with groups like the NAACP, with the faith community in North Carolina, to really look at solutions that rise all boats.
Miles O’Brien: Am I putting rose-colored glasses on if I say, there’s a grassroots change in the way people are thinking, is that really happening do you think? Do you think this ultimately will affect how people make decisions? You mentioned the midterms, decisions about who to vote for? Oftentimes, the environment doesn’t necessarily travel with people into the voting booth.
June Blotnick: I think you’re right about that. But when it hits you directly and personally and lives are lost, and homes are lost, you do have to think about that. We’re a little concerned about the midterms too just because voting maybe the last thing on folk’s minds in Eastern North Carolina. They are still trying to get back into their house. So, that has some of us really working hard to ensure people vote. I do think that there is a grassroots movement in North Carolina, but we are ultimately a very rural state and we have more work to do to build those bridges with those rural communities. That’s happening some with solar energy by companies working with farmers to use their land for solar energy as well as grazing for goats, with the Amazon wind farm that’s here in Eastern North Carolina, you’re seeing taxes brought in. So, it’s changing whether those in power want it to or not.
Miles O’Brien: So, they better watch out but it does require a fair amount of education and informing the public. There aren’t so many mechanisms for that anymore frankly. As a person who was on CNN for 17 years, talking about science and climate. The science unit doesn’t exist at CNN anymore. They’re all doing Trump tweets all day long.
There’s very little easily, readily, digestible, engaging information about these subjects that the average person can consume and understand. Do you find that frustrating?
June Blotnick: Well, it can be and we are not your typical grassroots organization. So, we work a lot with the medical community to educate them about the health impacts of climate change and how they can become advocates for clean energy. We work with scientists and medical researchers that are studying these things. So, our organization is a little different than your typical environmental group. So, we’re trying to pull in other partners, and other stakeholders. When you’re working in the community, the environmental justice movement was born in North Carolina. So, it’s a very strong movement here, some have been working in that area for years. But all of us talked about it and had a session on climate justice and how we can really listen to the people in those communities, what their needs are, and how solutions to climate change may also bring solutions to other aspects of their lives.
Miles O’Brien: Okay. I’m going to admit my ignorance here. I don’t know the history of how North Carolina is the home of the environmental justice movement. Is there a reasonably short story on that?
June Blotnick: Yeah, and of course, environmental injustices have been — has been happening forever. But in North Carolina, in the early 80’s, there was a company that drove trucks around the state in rural roads and they just dumped all this waste, and they had to find a place — they had to find a place where to put it. So, they’re going to put it in a rural area. So they went to Warren County, into a small town, mostly African-American. So, there was a big fight. That was sort of the first national fight against a waste dump being put in a low income community of color. So national people came and got arrested and those kinds of things. So, that happened and actually, the EPA created an environmental justice department or program not long after that, I think.
Miles O’Brien: Interesting. The story of environmental justice equates to or I guess, the story of climate justice is a natural progression out of environmental justice. Many of the issues are very similar except, I would suggest one thing.
One thing about climate is, it really affects everybody across the board, from the rich guy who’s got the beach house to the poor person who might be in an area which is near a pipeline, or is near a waste dump which may or may not be directly linked to climate change but certainly to the fossil fuel industry. Help us understand how climate change is also an issue of justice.
June Blotnick: So, if you just look at Florence, Hurricane Florence, and if you listen to the news and listen to the interviews of people in public housing in Wilmington, and they’re being asked, “Why didn’t you leave?” So, people with means have transportation, they have the money, they can leave. People that don’t have transportation, or may have elderly family in nursing homes that weren’t going anywhere, that’s a justice issue. They don’t really have the means to leave and so, they have to suffer the consequences of having their housing ruined and that kind of thing. So, it is a big difference. They may be hit by the same storm, but the opportunities that they have to protect themselves are much different.
Even in the urban areas, right now when you have with climate change weeks of extreme heat. Okay, who has an air conditioner, who doesn’t have an air conditioner? Whose housing is energy efficient so that even if they do have air conditioning and they turn it on, their bill isn’t going to go through the roof? So, those are the issues that climate change is going to highlight. So, it’s the individuals and families on the margins of society now who are suffering from an economic system that isn’t working for everybody, they’re going to suffer worse in climate change just like globally, right? The people that don’t have good housing, they are not going to fair very well in these storms.
Miles O’Brien: We should tell people listening that we just produced some stories for you highlighting some of the work you do in the communities, touching on some of the things we’ve just been talking about which by the way you can see on the Clean Air Carolina website. It will help you understand quite a bit about the impact they’re having all across North Carolina, maybe it’ll have some ripple effect outside the borders of this state as well. The story that–they were all good, I should say, and I’m not just tooting my own horn because producer Fedor Kossakovski who’s sitting right here, was the man who did really all the hard work–but there was a scene involving solar arrays being attached to the roof of a home of a person who might not otherwise been able to afford it. If only rich people go renewable, we’re not going to solve any problems, are we? For either them or us as a society, collectively. Is what we saw there, which is just a little one off program, is it realistic to imagine people in communities like that, disadvantaged communities, moving into a renewable energy future?
June Blotnick: Yes, it is imaginable if we have strong policies that enable it to happen. So, in North Carolina, our hands have been tied to expand rooftop solar, because the lack of legislation to allow third parties to get involved. So, only recently there was some bipartisan support for some experiments and third party sales and in community solar arrays.
Miles O’Brien: Help me understand the third party thing, what is it?
June Blotnick: Right now, our power company in the state, Duke Energy, is a monopoly and pretty much you have to get it your electricity from them unless you’re in a rural area with a co-op. So, what’s happening in other states are solar companies can finance the rooftop solar for the homeowner.
That makes it much more doable and that’s pretty much what happened in Genesis Park in Charlotte with Sharon Young. She didn’t have a solar company finance, but she was able to benefit from the generosity of a solar financing company and a solar company who donated their installation fees. But you have other states that have legislation to make rooftop solar much more common across the state. Right now, most of the solar in North Carolina is generated from solar farms. So, huge arrays of panels out in the country.
Miles O’Brien: I got to say, I invite our listeners to go and just watch that story because the excitement she had seeing this happen to her house is really palpable.
June Blotnick: She was so excited and happy and the ironic thing is I worked in that neighborhood 15 years ago and I knew her. So, when DeAndrea told us where they were going to do it, I was so excited and I was really excited that Sharon remembered me, and remembered my last name. That was a great experience for everybody that was a part of it and we made it happen. Like you said, it’s sort of a one off but before, with solar and low income communities and housing, you want to make sure the housing is energy efficient first. So, there is the double benefit there of making sure the home is energy efficient so that they don’t use as much energy and then the solar is just icing on a cake.
Miles O’Brien: Yeah, it’s not a simple one is it? None of these problems are. Let’s rewind just a little bit because we are of more or less the same vintage.
I grew up about the same time as you did in Detroit. You were in Pittsburg. What is Detroit but Pittsburg without the glitter, I guess. Anyway, so you grew up when the steel mills were still at full bloom. The city between us, Cleveland, the Cuyahoga River was burning. All of a sudden, an environmental movement cropped up and it was, it had tremendous momentum. Even a Republican president created the Environmental Protection Agency which all these things seem like we’re living inside the looking glass today, when you think about all of what happened then. What’s different and what’s the same for the environmental movement?
June Blotnick: Back then, when the Clean Air Act was passed, Clean Water Act, EPA was setup to monitor all those kinds of new laws. Yeah, the industrial pollution, car pollution from the transportation sector, just awful. So, there was a lot to do at the beginning and government was really responsive in a lot of ways. Congress had momentum to change laws, to enforce laws. There are Clean Air Act amendments in 1990 that went even further. So you had more bipartisan support back in those days because you could see the pollution. It’s different for me in North Carolina. So I’ve been down here for 34 years and most of the pollution in North Carolina is invisible. So, it really is challenging for Clean Air Carolina to convince people there is a problem.
I think, what’s changed at least for us, maybe it was easier to organize back then because people could see it and it was in the news a lot and especially in Pittsburg. I’m still working with an organization up there that was started back 34 years ago. So, there are organizations that are still around. But in North Carolina, what’s great about, like today, is the technology and science have caught up with the monitoring of air quality. So, now, you can monitor the air quality right outside your home in real time and see it up on the web. That’s what’s exciting about organizing and working on environmental issues today is the role that technology can play.
Miles O’Brien: And that leads us to one of the other stories we did which is the AirKeeper story.
This idea that individuals can have these devices, you can crowdsource this data, all these data can be aggregated. It’s a big data, crowdsourcing approach to air pollution to basically put a picture on that which is invisible in a sense. Does it work, does it get people mobilized, does the data itself do enough to trigger action?
June Blotnick: I think, we’re beginning to see that. So we’ve been working in a community in Charlotte which has lots of air pollution sources. We’ve been monitoring over there for about two years now and the awareness just from having that monitor on their home. And we just have three in the whole area, but they can see it every day.
So yes, for them, they’ve recognized more sources of pollution and they have been taking action. There was just a new company that wanted to expand in their part of town and they went for rezoning. It wasn’t going to be like a permitted facility where it’s an industrial site and you have to get a permit to pollute. It was really just a company that was going to just bring a lot of heavy duty diesel trucks on the site. They couldn’t go through the permitting process so they just had to organize and go to the zoning hearings and they won. I think, knowledge is power and these kinds of tools like portable air sensors give people the knowledge to really make a difference. What’s up next for us is to really create advocacy training sessions for our air keepers about air pollution in North Carolina.
Who controls it, what the laws are, who do you go to for complaints, what are the opportunities to reduce emissions in your community.
Miles O’Brien: There’s a series of significant health consequences linked to the quality of our air–asthma comes right to the top of the list always.
That’s another area you focus on and I like what your organization does trying to connect the dots between the symptoms, asthma, and a likely cause. But correlation and causation, this becomes a problem when you get into these discussions. Can we say with certainty that this case of asthma is caused by that ozone, all these things. When the Cuyahoga River is burning, it’s fairly straightforward, right? We know that that’s a problem. In this case, it requires nuance and subtlety. How do you explain it to people? How do you help them understand it when it requires maybe an attention span we don’t have anymore?
June Blotnick: Yes. Well, I think, the first thing we have to do is attract them, get them interested.
For the AirKeepers program, what gets them interested is a new gadget. What they can do to play with it and show their friends, go to this website you’ll see the level of particle pollution that’s right outside my house right now. So, you have to get them engaged and then you do have to and this –we’re in the middle of this right now is, creating a community of AirKeepers and elevating their voices in their neighborhoods and in their communities so that they can educate their public officials about what’s going on. It does take a lot of work and that’s where that advocacy training comes in. So we’re just beginning to build that level. The first thing we’re doing is just collecting baseline data for the whole state and getting people interested in what we’re doing and then we’ve got all these scientists interested.
So, we’ve got this advisory board we’re forming with scientists around the country. But then, we’ve got our AirKeepers, that’s a hundred people we’ll have that we can train to be advocates.
Miles O’Brien: How do you get people to pay attention to you? Everybody has megaphone now and so nobody has megaphone. The traditional media sources are not really interested so much. What do you do?
June Blotnick: It’s always been a challenge to get people to think about air pollution in North Carolina. One of the ways we’ve done it and we do this once a year is, we bring in this really cool art exhibit called “Particle Falls” and it was developed by a scientist and an artist, Andrea Polli in New Mexico. Basically, for one month, we have this projection of the side of a building. A purple waterfall, it looks like. The projector is connected to a nephelometer, which is an air quality monitor measuring invisible fine particle pollution, on the side of the building. So, on the corner of the building. So, as cars go by, the purple waterfall if that nephelometer picks up invisible particle pollution will start changing color and ultimately turn into a fireball. So people are walking by, “What’s that? What’s that?” It’s sort of like with Dr. Parr and Savvy, his dog wearing this box on his collar, “What’s that?” so it gives you an opportunity to educate people.
Miles O’Brien: Get people a little more on Bob Parr and the dog. It’s really an interesting story.
June Blotnick: So, Dr. Bob Parr is one of our Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, he’s involved in that program. He’s one of our AirKeepers and he lives in Wilmington. He has a dog name Savvy and she’s a very cute dog and Bob has a permanent monitor installed in his window to measure particle pollution and Savvy has a mobile monitor. So, he takes her for walks in Wrightsville Beach or Downtown Wilmington with the monitor and people will ask what it is and that’s an opening to talk about invisible air pollution.
Miles O’Brien: So, a Saint Bernard would have the little cask of brandy and Savvy has the air quality monitor. It sounds perfect, does that–is that enough or do you–you don’t seem frustrated with trying to get people’s attention. You found some good ways to reach them?
June Blotnick: They’re temporary, it’s just like anything else. They’re excited for a moment a day. But we’re trying to build a movement not just in North Carolina, but around the world of people that can be aware of their environment and what’s happening. That takes a long time, it really does. So I’m committed to it, our staff is committed to it, we recognize the frustrations of this work but I’m uplifted by the number of organizations in North Carolina, nonprofits. But then again, as I said, the universities getting involved in research, the environmental justice organizers. I’m really excited that we can turn the tide on awareness and change that into advocacy to change public policy that will really enable our state to be ready and continue to be ready for what’s coming down the pike.
One of the things we talked about just a few days ago in the mountains with the environmental groups getting together is that the legislature has really cut funding over the years to our Department of Environmental Quality. So, when Florence hit, their capacity to address it with their employees was hindered because of the lack of staff. We have to be able to fill in, in that situation. We had the Cape Fear Riverkeeper flying over hog lagoons to see what was going on. We’ll do a pitch for Environmental Defense Fund bringing in scientists to take samples of water.
So, the environmental community is going to have to fill in the gaps.
Miles O’Brien: All of this happens at a time when, in Washington, the concerns of the environment are completely under siege and you have an administration attempting to–they wouldn’t make any bones about it–trying to dismantle the EPA. On my dark days, that makes me very sad as it should all of us, frankly, because I think anybody like us whose lived through the first Earth Day, and the burning river, and the litter, and the pollution that all of this was the backstory which created the EPA lest we forget but I’m afraid we have in some respects. I can get blue about it, but then, I talk to people like you or I go to, a lot of the times I’ll be in California which is just taking its own. Governor Brown, God bless him. You get a sense that the environmental movement is almost energized by this moment. Do I have my rose colored glasses back on?
June Blotnick: There was a lot of depression first, right, after the presidential election. But people that are committed to this cause we’re down for a little bit but then we’re back up and we got to be strategic. The saying goes in these situations, “If you can’t get change at the federal level, work at your state level. If you can’t get change at your state level work at the local level,” so, we pivot and we make changes where we can until again, we can work at the federal level or the state level.
Miles O’Brien: So, you’re undeterred. Discouraged or not?
June Blotnick: I am discouraged, I can’t deny that but I don’t have much choice. I don’t think any of us living on the planet today has a whole lot of choice and it’s going to hit them personally sooner or later, the climate change. I feel like the ones getting hit now are going to help the rest of us raise the conversation, raise awareness, and get the people to say, “Hey, we need to do something. We need to work for solutions.” And we just have to hold out hope and stand for the long run.
Miles O’Brien: Do you really think people at the level you deal with them are changing their minds and are seeing the stakes a little more clearly and are understanding that it is all very real and happening now?
June Blotnick: I think it is here in North Carolina and I think, across the country and around the world. I mean, there are so many groups around the world that are seeing the impacts of climate change in their countries. We’re all connected now with the internet, we all have videos and films with people telling their stories that are so powerful and that gives us the energy to keep going. So I’m energized. We don’t have much of a choice. I think what happens with a lot of people is, they believe that they just don’t know what to do. They can’t afford solar panels, right? Or they can’t afford a Tesla. So, they need to figure out and have organizations like ours say, “Okay, well, here’s what you can do.”
If you can do something, buy a fuel efficient car. Because, what’s coming out of your tailpipes is contributing to climate change.
Miles O’Brien: Do you feel like you’re moving the needle?
June Blotnick: It’s a big needle, and I can’t say whether we are or not but we just have to keep pushing.
Miles O’Brien: Thank you very much, June. I enjoyed working together with your team and I enjoyed talking with you.
You know, people like June and organizations like Clean Air Carolina give me some spark of hope when I think about the overwhelming issues of climate change. Maybe we can beat this thing, but it’s going to take a lot of work.
Also, while I’ve got you, please rate and review this podcast, it would really help us out. And sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get my favorite science news of the week delivered straight to your inbox. Just once a week, that’s it–one email, no spam.
Thanks for listening! I’m Miles O’Brien and this is Miles To Go.
Banner image credit: Matt Couch | Clean Air Carolina.