Local nonprofits talk climate impacts

WASHED AWAY: Big Ears Farmstead, in the Haywood County community of Cruso, was devastated by flooding from Tropical Storm Fred in August. Photo courtesy of Molly Nicholie

Uncertainty is a fact of life at nonprofits, especially with regard to funding. But local organizations are increasingly attuned to another uncertainty: how to prepare for the consequences that climate change will have on their work.

Some impacts of the changing climate on Western North Carolina are becoming clear. The N.C. Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan, a 2020 report from the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, states that greater inland flooding, stronger hurricanes, higher summer heat, greater total precipitation and more intensely severe droughts are all likely consequences of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Less scientifically clear are the social effects that will follow. However, experts predict substantial migration to WNC from people fleeing sea level rise and extreme weather, as well as disruptions to food supplies and greater risks for infectious disease.

Local governments have started to plan for these challenges. The city of Asheville, for example, released a climate resilience resource guide in 2019 and is currently developing a municipal climate action plan.

Xpress reached out to several local nonprofits to ask if similar planning efforts were afoot. While none have embarked on a formal effort like that of the city, all said climate was on their minds.

Weathering the storm

Molly Nicholie, executive director of the Asheville-based local food nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, is already working with farmers to assess and mitigate their climate risks.

Farmers are accustomed to adapting to changing weather year to year. But the temperature increases, severe droughts, heavy rains and natural disasters that have been linked to climate change can all have an outsized impact on their job.

ASAP’s mission is to “keep farmers farming in the region,” explains Nicholie, and she says the nonprofit has been having conversations with farmers on how to “literally weather the storm of [what is] coming with climate change” for several years.

Much of this discussion concerns financial planning. Farms operate on tight budgets; ASAP encourages them to anticipate future inclement events in their business plans, Nicholie says. Difficulties could come from both the loss of income due to extreme weather and costs of rebuilding lost infrastructure.

Tropical Storm Fred, which tore through the Southeast in August, demonstrated what the consequences of that extreme weather might look like. Flooding from the storm killed five people and displaced roughly 500 families throughout Haywood County. (Although Fred’s heavy precipitation has not been formally attributed to climate change, the N.C. State Climate Office at N.C. State University noted after the storm that its severity was in line with expected climate impacts.)

“Fred significantly impacted a good number of farmers with some horrible flooding that wiped out crops and literally washed away homes or barns,” Nicholie tells Xpress. “When you’re looking at that from a business model, you’re not only losing all of what you’ve invested in that particular crop that gets washed away, but you’ve got all that infrastructure costs, cleanup and damage — those built-in, layered costs — moving forward.”

ASAP is also aiding farmers with production strategies, like how to grow crops in flood plains. Nicholie says the nonprofit is “making sure they have a diversified array of different things they’re growing, so that if one crop gets washed away, it’s not a total loss.”

Preparing for changes in the invertebrate world is another concern. Insects such as the sugarcane aphid, a pest of sorghum, are increasingly attacking crops across the Southeast, Nicholie explains. That forces farmers to adopt new pest management strategies.

“As the temperatures are changing and the ranges of some of these insects are changing, they’re seeing insect pressures that they never saw before,” she says.

Urgent matters

For organizations that work with unhoused, uninsured or low-income people, climate discussions may be a bit more abstract. The Center for Native Health, which seeks to address health disparities among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, hopes to address climate change as part of its work, says Executive Director Trey Adcock. But the nonprofit also has more immediate needs, he says, such as addressing  chronic illness, substance use disorder and even COVID-19 in Indigenous populations.

“On one hand, we need to be talking about [climate change] because it’s coming, whether we like it or not, ” Adcock says. “On the other hand, we’re also still still dealing with, at some level, pure survival with some things.”

Similar thoughts were echoed by Jim Barrett, executive director of Asheville-based Pisgah Legal Services. The nonprofit frequently works with individuals who are facing evictions or other housing-related disruptions. For this population, he says, climate change doesn’t feel as urgent as day-to-day struggles.

“Our clients don’t have the financial means to do much preparation [for climate change],” Barrett says. “But I don’t know how we can help our clients avoid that other than helping them get out of poverty — which we do every day —  so they have more choices.”

Employees at the nonprofit realize their clients living in low-lying places will be particularly vulnerable to flooding, Barrett continues. And North Carolina’s Climate Risk Assessment and Resilience Plan has identified Buncombe and Henderson counties, among others, as places where vulnerable populations may be harmed by increased risks of wildfires and associated poor air quality.

“Different levels of social vulnerability reflect — and may magnify — historic, social, and economic inequalities,” the state climate plan notes. “The impacts of natural disasters are often disproportionately felt in low-income communities and communities of color, who may face additional burdens like poor political representation, housing instability or discrimination.”

One day at a time

Pisgah Legal’s work generally confronts more immediate challenges than climate. “I wouldn’t say that we have spent much time thinking about [climate change] because it’s coming on gradually,” Barrett says.

In that way, he draws a parallel between the organization itself and its clients. “We don’t know where our funding is going to come from a year from now,” Barrett says. “So long-term planning is hard to spend a lot of time on.”

Yet he’s concerned at how the predicted population growth in the mountains of WNC due to people seeking climate-safe housing will push marginalized people even further into the margins. Climate migration by those with more financial resources will drive up housing costs, Barrett says, “arguably making us need more resources to prevent evictions and foreclosures and advocate for affordable housing.”

Adcock also says it’s hard for his organization to plan for climate change more directly. “There is a part of me that feels, man, there’s a privilege to be able to have that conversation,” he says. “Man, I wish we could just sit around and talk about alternative ways of living.”

But he notes that Indigenous communities have experience with perseverance and adaptability. “When it comes to thinking about land, food [and] living in sustainable ways, Indigenous people should not just have a seat at that table,” Adcock says. “I think oftentimes that maybe we should be leading this conversation.”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.