Where the candidates for Georgia governor stand on climate change

When Hurricane Matthew ripped through Georgia’s coastal counties in 2016, it helped shatter any perception that the state is protected from devastating hurricanes because of its sheltering concave shape and vigilant barrier islands. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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When Hurricane Matthew ripped through Georgia’s coastal counties in 2016, it helped shatter any perception that the state is protected from devastating hurricanes because of its sheltering concave shape and vigilant barrier islands. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The devastation wrought by Hurricane Michael brought to light a debate over environmental policy that’s attracted little attention in this year’s race for Georgia governor.

Whoever succeeds Gov. Nathan Deal will face consequential decisions over how to approach climate change, tackle environmental regulations and decide whether to fight or embrace federal environmental standards.

That extends to questions about whether Georgia should take broader steps to prepare for more catastrophic weather, such as changing zoning rules in low-lying areas, setting aside more money to restore vanishing shorelines and creating building code rules that anticipate rising sea levels.

Their approaches will have far-reaching consequences. With 100 miles of shoreline, Georgia’s coastal counties are home to more than 500,000 people — about 5 percent of the state’s population.

Any perception that Georgia’s coast is protected from devastating hurricanes because of its sheltering concave shape and vigilant barrier islands was shattered after it was swiped by the catastrophic one-two punch of Matthew and Irma in 2016 and 2017.

And Hurricane Michael proved last week that even communities far from shore could be pummeled with devastating force, with the storm blamed for the death of an 11-year-old girl in southwest Georgia staying about 100 miles inland from where it made landfall.

With climate scientists warning that warming oceans will supercharge more hurricanes, the epic storms that deliver gale-force winds and widespread flooding may become more regular occurrences.

And no matter who wins the race, he or she will face challenges in implementing policies in a state where there is no widespread agreement on the causes and effects of the planet’s warming temperatures.

‘Fact-based efforts’

Democrat Stacey Abrams tells audiences on the campaign trail that “climate change is real” and the state needs to begin bracing for it. She vows to strengthen environmental protections and advocate for policies that address pollution that contributes to climate change.

She also links the warming temperatures to tantalizing economic development opportunities, saying her policies could position the state to create as many as 45,000 high-wage jobs in the growing alternative energy sector.

Republican Brian Kemp has a more cautious view of the state’s role in combating climate change. He supports “fact-based efforts” to protect the environment, but he doesn’t believe “government red tape is the answer.”

“We can strike a balance between preserving what makes Georgia unique and being a welcoming place for businesses of all sizes and all industries to grow and prosper,” he said.

Georgia has taken initial steps to prepare for climate change, including developing long-term plans to help coastal counties adapt to rising sea levels, though experts and coastal residents say more could be done.

But the state has resisted some of the more ambitious efforts taken by other states. While Gov. Nathan Deal supported a $6 million effort in 2014 to rebuild Tybee Island's dunes, he has said it should be up to local authorities to adopt development restrictions and take other preventive measures on their own.

‘Tap the expertise’

Kemp agrees with that stance, saying a “one-size-fits-all approach from state government is not the answer.” His policy doesn’t include any detailed plans to restore shoreline or take other overt preventive measures.

He’s also generally opposed to new statewide regulations, such as new building codes that are the subject of heated debate in Florida. That state already has some of the nation’s toughest codes, but the rules are more lenient on the Panhandle, which until recently had largely escaped direct hits.

“Local communities should decide what codes and regulations address the threats they face and proceed accordingly,” he said.

Abrams, for her part, suggested she was open to broader policy changes to prepare for the changing climate. She said she would “fully tap the expertise” in Georgia to develop new disaster management protocol and environmental plans for rising temperatures.

“We must base our policy and planning on evidence,” she said. “We have to plan for more severe storms and understand the implications for our schools, neighborhoods, businesses, roads, power grid and more.”

Both, however, are united on at least one environmental front: They both support a constitutional amendment that would set aside 80 percent of existing sales taxes on sporting goods for conservation efforts that would raise $200 million over the next decade.

OUR REPORTING

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is putting issues out front in its coverage of this year's election. Topics the AJC has already explored include election securitygun rights and the influence of dark money in fundraising. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state approaches Election Day on Nov. 6.

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