By on 3.31.22 in Health & Environment, NC in Focus

Climate change affects us all, but that impact is not spread evenly across populations. In North Carolina, we are seeing changes ranging from coast line erosion and increased frequency of powerful storms to floods, drought, and increased temperatures.

Rural communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Small rural towns are often less resilient – meaning they don’t have the ability to withstand or recover quickly from natural disasters– than their larger, more urban counterparts. As a result, they are often more susceptible to negative socioeconomic impacts from the changing climate.

The impact of climate change on rural areas is felt beyond their borders. The Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in 2018,  describes how “impacts on one system can result in increased risks or failures in other critical systems, including water resources, food production and distribution, energy and transportation, public health, international trade, and national security.”

In other words, communities across the country of all sizes will feel the effects of climate change. However, as the Climate Assessment notes, the “impact within and across regions will not be distributed equally.”

Examples in North Carolina

This was highlighted in Christopher Flavelle’s recent New York Times piece about the economic impacts of climate change on rural communities. Flavelle visits the town of Fair Bluff, North Carolina, five years after Hurricane Matthew leveled the community and three years after Hurricane Florence flooded the entire Southeast portion of the state. Fair Bluff is in Columbus County, a rural area on the coastal floodplain of the Cape Fear Region.

What Flavelle found on his trip was a town full of abandoned storefronts and collapsed buildings, with no real plans to rebuild the infrastructure that existed before extensive flood damage. We see a town where businesses have left, residents are relocating, and the local government is debating which services to cut – including the town police department — due to the lack of a local tax base.

What happened in Fair Bluff is an extreme case, but there are many examples of climate change affecting rural, coastal communities in NC. For example, Dare and Hyde counties – both rural – are among the counties with the most hurricane-related FEMA emergencies since 2010.

Areas that are slightly more inland are also seeing the effects of sea-level rise and increased storm surge during hurricanes. Towns like Ivanhoe, North Carolina, which have rivers running through or near their towns, have experienced detrimental flooding. During large hurricanes – such as Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018 – high levels of storm surge have impacts far beyond the coast. A lot of that water ends up in rivers and streams, causing them to overflow into the surrounding areas. In some cases, storms are occurring faster than people can rebuild. Many times, this means people are forced to abandon their homes for good, further reducing the population of rural towns.

The impact on rural communities is then felt beyond their borders: for example, North Carolina agriculture has had significant losses due to droughts, floods, and extreme temperatures according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). And, when individuals leave communities due to climate-related changes, they may move elsewhere in the state, which can put pressure on affordable housing (already in short supply in Wake County).

Population loss affects climate response

Rural towns are less equipped to prepare for climate change compared to dense urban centers for a number of reasons, including, on average, higher rates of unemployment and their reliance on a smaller number of industries – mainly agriculture, which is already seeing losses from these impacts. One challenge that has stuck out to many, including Flavelle, is their size.

While there are many ways to define what it means to truly be rural, density and the number of residents in an area are a key factor. Smaller populations mean a smaller workforce and less tax revenue. This translates into larger impacts for small changes in population.

For example, let’s say that two counties both lose 10 people over the same time period. If County A has 1,000 people and County B has only 100, who will see the larger impact? County A sees a 1% loss, while County B would see a loss of 10%, a relative loss 10 times the former.

And part of this is a vicious cycle: rural areas have lower access to healthcare, education, groceries, broadband internet, and many other essential industries. Businesses are not likely to invest in towns and counties which are rapidly losing population, and the small businesses that are there, which are a key component of rural resilience, risk going out of business as population declines.

When these resources decline, people are more likely to leave. And as fewer people remain, there’s even less likelihood of withstanding or recovering quickly from extreme-weather related events.

Where to learn more

The National Climate Assessment makes the point that all of these climate-related impacts are interconnected, which also means the response must be inclusive of both rural and urban areas. We have compiled some resources for learning more:

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