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What’s next for Delaware as it tackles climate change? State officials promise a new roadmap

Delaware Public Media

Delaware is revisiting what it needs to do to combat climate change. 

DNREC holds public meetings in Georgetown, Wilmington and Dover next week to discuss what it wants to do and get feedback as it develops a climate action plan.  But already some are saying not the state is not on the right track.

Contributor Jon Hurdle takes a closer look at where the First State is headed on developing its climate policy.


Delaware is stepping up its efforts to plan for and combat climate change amid gathering evidence of higher temperatures, bigger floods and sea levels that are rising along the mid-Atlantic coast at about twice the global rate.

Officials are getting ready to roll out a new climate action plan which will identify how the state will meet its goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 25-28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, and will report on how to reduce the impacts of climate change such as sea-level rise and coastal flooding that are already being seen in some places.

To gather public input, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control is holding public meetings in Georgetown, Wilmington and Dover on March 3, 4 and 5, respectively, when citizens will be able to learn how to reduce their own emissions, and better prepare the state for climate impacts.

Comments at the meetings will be combined with data on public attitudes to climate change gleaned froma recent survey  by DNREC and the University of Delaware to help shape policy, said DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin.

The survey of 1,126 people by a polling company online or by phone in late 2019 found a slight increase in the proportion of respondents who said they had personally experienced the effects of climate change – 56 percent, up from 53 percent in a 2014 survey for DNREC. But the latest survey found a much bigger increase in the number of people who said they had personally experienced sea-level rise specifically – 47 percent versus 28 percent in a 2014 survey.

"When we start seeing where interests and concerns are, we start putting a draft plan together on what we need to do as a state as it relates to mitigation and resiliency." - DNREC Sec. Shawn Garvin.

Three-quarters (77%) of Delawareans are completely or mostly convinced that climate change is happening, and 70% say the state should take immediate action to reduce its impacts, the survey found. Fifty-six percent of respondents think climate change will harm them to significantly or moderately, rising to 77 percent who think that future generations will be harmed by it.

“More and more Delawareans are experiencing the impacts that climate change and sea level rise are having on our state, and this survey shows they support actions to reduce this growing threat,” Garvin said in a statement. “The next step for Delawareans is to take part in conversations to help Delaware decide where and how we must act.”

In an interview after presenting the agency’s fiscal 2021 budget request to the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on Feb. 18, Garvin said the survey results will feed into a new climate plan that he plans to publish in December.

 “When we start seeing where interests and concerns are, we start putting a draft plan together on what we need to do as a state as it relates to mitigation and resiliency,” he said.

The new climate plan will follow a 2016 study by the Markell administration that reported on the state’s progress on climate mitigation to date. By contrast, the new report will be a forward-looking document that will describe the actions Delaware will take in future to combat climate change, said Michael Globetti, a DNREC spokesman.

The new plan represents a renewed commitment by Delaware to contribute to a 197-nation effort to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels under the Paris Climate Accord of 2015. It also reflects Gov. John Carney’s decision to join the U.S. Climate Alliance of 24 states that pledged to pursue the Paris goals despite the Trump administration’s rejection of them.

“When the federal government backed off on their efforts on climate, the Governor joined the Climate Alliance, to say Delaware is still going to do its part,” Garvin said. “We will have an updated plan that gives us a roadmap on how we’re going to do that.”

The earlier report grew out of a 2013 executive order by former Gov. Jack Markell that set a goal for cutting carbon emissions and established a Governor’s Committee on Climate and Resiliency which would coordinate the state’s climate policy.

That panel has been sidelined under the Carney administration. Asked whether the panel was still in operation, Garvin described it as “inactive”, and said DNREC’s Division of Climate, Coastal and Energy is now leading climate policy.

"We need something that's across the board. DelDOT doesn't have any reason to do what DNREC says. The Housing department doesn't have to do anything. DHSS hasn't done anything." - UD adjunct professor of climatology TerriAnne Lavin.

But according to one critic, DNREC’s leadership on climate policy doesn’t address the need for coordination by a high-level entity, and will result in measures that are fragmented and inadequate.

TerriAnne Lavin, an adjunct professor of climatology at the University of Delaware, said agencies covering areas such as transportation, housing or public health aren’t governed by DNREC, and aren’t required to follow its lead on climate policy.

“We need something that’s across the board,” she said. “DelDOT doesn’t have any reason to do what DNREC says. The Housing department doesn’t have to do anything. DHSS hasn’t done anything. There is absolutely no plan for what’s going to happen when we have heat waves.”

While progress has been made at the Resilient and Sustainable Communities League (RASCL), a DNREC-led group that advises towns and counties how to prepare for a changing climate, local participation is only voluntary, and that’s an insufficient response to the climate crisis, said Lavin, who presented her case to a DNREC wetlands conference in January.

“RASCL is set up as a resource for people who voluntarily want to do something,” Lavin said. It’s saying: ‘We’ll help you make a good decision if you want to come here and ask us.’ There’s no requirement for any of the municipalities and counties to actually do those things.”

She called for a law that would require the state to become carbon-neutral by a certain deadline, and would revive a team like Markell’s committee that would have overall responsibility for climate policy.

For his part, Garvin denied that climate policy is fragmented, saying DNREC is working on a number of fronts to mitigate climate change and prepare for its effects.

“There’s a lot of things that are going on right now, and some of them are continuations of efforts that occurred under previous administrations, and some of them are related to the commitments that the state had under the Obama administration such as the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Accord,” he said.  “The climate strategy becomes the roadmap that ties all those things together. I can say that our department, our division, is involved in all those pieces.”

In the coming fiscal year, DNREC is seeking more money for climate-change preparation in its latest operating budget. Among the new items in the agency’s $39.1 million general fund request is $211,000 for two new planners to work on greenhouse gas modeling and facilitate the planning process. The budget is also seeking $100,000 for Gov. Carney’s plan to plant 1 million trees in Delaware over 10 years.

The new request is 2.6 percent higher than the current year, and would represent about a quarter of DNREC’s total budget for fiscal 2021 after collected revenues, fees and federal funding are added. While the department’s budget is gradually growing, its staffing has dropped significantly over the last decade, the budget figures show. The number of full-time positions paid for by the general fund has declined by 23 percent since 2009 while those supported by fees and federal funding have dropped by about 5 percent.

Meanwhile, Carney said the state’s efforts to cut its carbon emissions have converted all but one power plant to using natural gas rather than coal but have been less successful in the transportation sector.

In a Feb. 18 interview with Delaware Public Media’s The Green, the Governor said the state plans to set a higher bar for the adoption of renewable fuels in the power-generation mix – requiring utilities to use 40 percent renewables by 2035, up from the current goal of 25 percent by 2025. The new target is specified in the current Senate Bill 181, being led by Sen. Harris McDowell.

Cutting transportation emissions is more challenging because it relies more heavily on individual willingness to switch to electric vehicles (EVs) or use transit wherever possible, Carney said.

To encourage the use of EVs and transit, the state is supporting the addition of charging stations and electric buses, while DNREC is focusing on renewables, energy efficiency, and coastal resilience, he said.

Carney acknowledged the low-lying state faces a “significant challenge” to defend its shore against rising seas, and noted that state and federal funding for beach replenishment does not currently match demand in some shore communities.

“The people that are on the front lines are the people who own houses along the beaches from Broadkill all the way up, and we’ve got a significant challenge there,” Carney said. “More and more of those bay beach communities in particular are expressing really dire need for beach-replenishment money, which at the moment is not in either the federal or the state plan.”

"We need to think through how do we communicate to the people of our state the things that individuals need to do." - Gov. John Carney

Sea levels in Delaware are forecast to rise by as much as five feet by the end of the century, according to a 2017 report from the Delaware Geological Survey and DNREC. The study updated a report in 2009 that estimated between 8 and 11 percent of the state’s land mass could be inundated by 2100 under the sea-level rise scenarios.

The rate of sea-level rise in Delaware and other mid-Atlantic states exceeds the global rate because the region’s land is sinking at the same time seas are rising. According to research from the University of Delaware, Bowers Beach is seeing the highest rate of SLR on the mid-Atlantic coast.

Among the challenges facing state planners is to educate the public on the realities of climate change, Carney said.

“We need to think through how do we communicate to the people of our state the things that individuals need to do, the things they are going to see that will change in the world in which we live, to move towards a carbon-free world,” he said.

Anne Harper, executive director of the Delaware Nature Society, urged the Joint Finance Committee to approve DNREC’s budget request, including its funding for the climate change plan.

She said the plan will be a “vital road map” that will identify specific ways of meeting the 2025 goal for cutting carbon emissions and making further cuts in the years beyond.


Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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