In the N.C. Governor’s Race, the GOP Frontrunner Is a Climate Denier, and the Democrat Doesn’t Want to Talk About It

One stifling Sunday last summer, Winkler’s Grove Baptist Church’s congregation gathered in Hickory, North Carolina, for morning worship. The service’s guest speaker, Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, was three months into his gubernatorial campaign. After 25 minutes at the lectern, he turned his attention to climate change.

“Last month it was a little cool. It was in the 60s. That was spring. Then the climate changed because summer came and it got hot,” said Robinson. “The climate is going to change, because it happens four times a year.”

Robinson went on to repeat well-trodden climate misinformation—that there are “more polar bears on earth now than ever” and that scientists predicted “New York City would be underwater” by now—before decrying anthropogenic climate change as a hoax, based on “pseudoscience, junk science, that has not proven a single solitary thing.”

On Super Tuesday, North Carolina Democrats and Republicans will choose their candidates in primary elections to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Robinson is the clear Republican frontrunner, and is expected to face Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein in November’s general election. Stein, the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic primary, has the support of outgoing Cooper; former president Donald Trump has endorsed Robinson.

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In a swing state with a super majority Republican legislature awaiting whomever is elected, the most recent polling has no more than a point between the two would-be candidates. Despite being close in the polls, Robinson and Stein could hardly sit further apart on a range of issues,  from public education to reproductive rights. Climate, energy and the environment are no exception.

“One guy acknowledges it and one guy denies it, so that’s pretty stark,” Melissa McCullough, a council member in Chapel Hill, 30 miles west of Raleigh, said of climate change. She is co-chair of the Sierra Club’s political committee in North Carolina. 

In campaign speeches and interviews Stein has expressed a willingness to follow through on Cooper’s clean energy ambitions, including an executive order aiming the state toward carbon neutrality by 2050. The stance has earned Stein the support of environmental groups like the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters. 

Robinson, conversely, sees the state’s future in fossil fuels. “God is the one who has blessed us to have all this fuel under our feet,” Robinson told the Winkler’s Grove congregation. “Not taking advantage of it and allowing people to suffer because of [that] is an affront to him.”

If nominated, Robinson and Stein will take their differences of belief into the general election at an important juncture for North Carolina’s climate future. 

After over a dozen years of deregulation, advocates say environmental protections have never been weaker. The state’s largest power utility, Duke Energy, has pledged to halve its emissions by 2030 with the help of nuclear energy. Meanwhile, climate change driven by fossil fuel emissions is expected to stoke ever more powerful hurricanes, and coastal areas will suffer daily flooding by the end of the century, according to the state Institute for Climate Studies.

“We are uniquely vulnerable to climate change,” said the Sierra Club’s other political co-chair, Drew Ball. “We have some historic communities that are becoming underwater and others facing multiple 100-year storms.” 

David McLennan, a politics professor and director of Meredith College’s statewide poll, said he expects Stein, if elected, to follow in Cooper’s footsteps and forge an “uneasy standstill” with North Carolina’s Republican legislature when it comes to environmental policy. Electing Robinson, McLennan said, would mean “a big change.”

Particularly during Cooper’s second term, North Carolina’s legislature has demonstrated an eagerness to facilitate industry and development, advocates have argued, at the expense of environmental protections. Within months of the Supreme Court lifting EPA regulations on wetlands in 2023, North Carolina’s lawmakers passed a Farm Act that removed state regulation for 2.5 million acres of wetland.

“I think if Robinson becomes governor and the legislature stays solidly Republican we could see a rollback of environmental regulations: air, water, pressure being removed from Duke Energy,” he said. “Just a whole host of things.”

Mark Robinson addresses supporters during a campaign event at Pelican's Perch Bar & Grill on Feb. 17 in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. Credit: Madeline Gray/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Mark Robinson addresses supporters during a campaign event at Pelican’s Perch Bar & Grill on Feb. 17 in Ocean Isle Beach, N.C. Credit: Madeline Gray/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Neither candidate agreed to an interview with Inside Climate News. Robinson’s campaign offered an emailed statement about his energy, environmental and climate priorities, and Stein responded to written questions. 

The Robinson campaign’s head spokesperson, Mike Lonergan, said that “responsible development of fossil fuels,” and nuclear power, represent a “common-sense approach that will create more jobs and ease the pain on consumers while balancing the need to protect the environment.” Cooper’s renewable energy push, he wrote, “cater[s] to the extreme left of their party,” while handing “crippling utility bills” to consumers. The statement did not mention climate change.

In emailed comments to ICN, Stein recommitted to carbon neutrality by 2050 and promised preparations “for the impacts of climate change and natural disasters.” He said that wetland conservation could help mitigate flood risk, touted the state’s solar and wind opportunities and promised to fight for clean air and water in the face of industrial polluters. 

Climate, however, has not appeared to be a central part of either campaign’s messaging. Since Stein announced his candidacy, he has posted on X, formerly Twitter, about climate issues six times, compared to almost 40 posts about abortion rights. In fact, Stein, a self-confessed “BBQ hound,” posted more frequently about barbecue than climate.

“I think he’s been to every barbeque joint in North Carolina,” said Mary Maclean Asbill, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s North Carolina offices. “It’s just really hard to get that average voter to think about climate change in this crowded, issue-laden place where we are.”

According to the Meredith Poll in early February, education and reproductive rights are more important to North Carolina voters than climate. “Environment has registered when I’ve asked people to rank their top issues, but it has not ranked above their top four,” said McLennan, adding climate was more important to voters of color, Democrats, young people and college educated voters. 

For most voters, Stein’s position on the environment can be taken as read, said McLennan. “I think for people who care about the environment, they already believe that the Democrats will do more to protect the environment than Republicans will.” 

“It’s just really hard to get that average voter to think about climate change in this crowded, issue-laden place where we are.”

It is also possible, he said, that voters have become accustomed to a stalemate between Cooper’s climate ambitions and a Republican legislature. “They’ve kind of reached a standstill,” McLennan said. “I mean, when the legislature wants to reduce environmental regulations, the governor vetoes them.”

The next governor is likely to face a different balance of power with the legislature, however. In April 2023, Cooper lost the effective power of veto when House Rep. Tricia Cotham switched her affiliation and joined the Republican party. The GOP now controls the lower chamber 72-48. Republicans already held a veto-proof majority in the Senate. 

Since then, the legislature has overruled Cooper’s vetoes on a suite of laws weakening environmental protections—from expedited permitting for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, to looser limits for hog waste pollution—and similarly voted through a bill which redefined “clean energy” to include nuclear power plants. 

According to Asbill, that left Cooper and any future governor with two main avenues for climate progress: “appointing good smart citizens to boards and commissions that deal with energy and the environment” and “several executive orders.” 

Cooper has issued six executive orders addressing climate change, including establishing an environmental health equity “task force” and pushing for renewable energy, particularly offshore wind.

The next governor will also face significantly weakened powers to appoint officials following a run of Republican bills in the second half of 2023. They strip the governor of a right to pick a majority on boards, committees and commissions ranging from transportation and public health to environmental management and coastal resources. 

Cooper’s office has sued Republican legislative leaders, arguing that the changes are an unconstitutional threat to the state’s separation of powers. Already, the sitting governor lost his majority of selections on the Utilities Commission, when two former Republican legislators were appointed in October. The Utilities Commission is responsible for overseeing Duke and Dominion Energy’s plans to transition away from coal. Cooper has in the past faulted the companies for relying too heavily on gas and nuclear at the expense of renewables.

When ICN asked Stein how he would work with the legislature to implement his climate goals if elected, Stein pointed to House Bill 951, a bipartisan law Cooper signed in October 2021 requiring the North Carolina Utilities Commission to take the necessary steps for state providers to reduce carbon emissions by 70 percent  from 2005 levels by the year 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

According to Wayne Turner, the North Carolina Green Party’s gubernatorial candidate, climate may not be a central part of the race because any elected candidate faces the same, increasingly powerful legislature.

“Stein will be able to appoint people, but he will be appointing people to already stacked boards,” said Turner, who is not standing in Tuesday’s primaries, because he is the Green Party’s single nominee. “If they restore that power to Robinson he’ll just appoint people to already stacked boards.”

For that reason Robinson, whom Turner described as a “theocrat,” might not make a more damaging Governor than any other candidate. “It would bother me more,” Turner said, “except that the legislature here is essentially taking control of the government. Unless they grant [Robinson] some specific power if he gets into office, right now he’s just as ineffective as any governor would be.”

That underestimates the soft power that comes along with a governorship, said McCullough, the Chapel Hill council member who worked as an EPA scientist and advisor for three decades. “I’ve lived through it back and forth and back and forth at the EPA. And when people say there’s not a difference between the parties, it always just makes me very, very angry,” she said. “The kinds of things that go on inside the agencies [change] with the science and how laws are executed and what can be done without the General Assembly.”

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There are also avenues where the legislature has worked with Cooper. “When it comes down to jobs and money then the Republicans will pay a little more attention,” said McCullough, “like they did with the jobs for solar. Coastal conservatives are also very much against offshore drilling. If you talk about storms and resilience you can make more progress than talking about climate change.”

If elected to two terms, North Carolina’s next governor will pass salient deadlines for cutting emissions and a race to ensure resilience against increasingly severe storms and flooding. For a state which doesn’t talk about climate change enough, that may just be the beginning, said Turner.

“We need to get people talking about what’s going to happen in 20 years when the state is hotter and drier and you can’t support the crops that it’s been supporting,” he said. 

Whoever is elected North Carolina’s governor—whether or not they can make their voice count—“It’s a real challenge,” said Turner.

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