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PW exclusive: North Carolina energy magazine censors references to climate change

[1]Publication of state electric cooperatives directs author to “steer clear” of “political topics” like climate change

Do you remember when October was chilly enough for a bonfire? When the streets of Wilmington didn’t flood on sunny days? And for the drought-stricken two-thirds of the state, do you remember when it used to rain?

“Solastalgia” is a new term for the Anthropocene [2] (the human influenced epoch we now inhabit): Feeling homesick while at home, feeling anguish at losing a sense of identity and place because of climate change.

Rural North Carolina, where the weather and seasons dictate a way of life, is especially vulnerable to the hurricanes, flooding and extreme weather that is supercharged by climate change. Worse yet, these communities often don’t have the money, infrastructure, people power, and in some cases, information to adapt.

An obvious and convenient source of that information for rural residents would be Carolina Country [3] magazine. The most widely circulated publication in North Carolina, it is delivered for free each month to 700,000 rural households that receive their energy from one of North Carolina’s 26 electric cooperatives.

But rural residents won’t learn much about how to adapt to climate change in the magazine. In fact, those in search will rarely find the words “climate change” within Carolina Country’s pages — just twice in the last six years.

Emails provided to Policy Watch by one of the magazine’s writers, Hannah Reynolds McKenzie, show that climate change is one of several topics that are off-limits.

For seven years, McKenzie has written “On the House,” a column about household energy efficiency. She contracts with Advanced Energy [4], a [5] nonprofit energy firm created by the state Utilities Commission in 1980. Its board is composed of utilities — Duke Energy, Dominion, and the NC Electric Membership Corporation [6] (NCEMC — the mother ship over 26 regional electric co-ops) — and public members who are appointed by the governor.

Advanced Energy, in turn contracts with several clients to work on energy efficiency and conservation projects. Those clients include Carolina Country magazine, a publication of the NCEMC.

In February 2018, Lisa Manuel, a project manager for Advanced Energy, emailed instructions to McKenzie from the magazine’s editor, Scott Gates:

Since Carolina Country magazine will reach audiences of various demographics in NC, the article should steer clear of any political stance or topics. With that in mind, these are topics that are recommended to avoid:

Climate change

Political

Time of Use

Any topics on rates

Onsite generation – solar panels on roof top

Carbon footprint

Rate comparisons

Using specific Co-op as an example – keep general”

Just last week, McKenzie pitched another column idea that included a discussion of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas and primary driver of climate change.

Manuel again had to relay the bad news:

I ran the article by Vicky [McCann, vice president of client services at Advanced Energy] and her response was the same: This is a topic that we should avoid per our customer’s [Carolina Country’s] request. This puts me in a tough spot as I have to have the best interest of my customer and their readers.

One suggestion from Vicky is to re-write the article to exclude carbon, but maybe talk about other small loads that add up to large energy expenses.

While I understand your passion on the topic, as the article stands, we are not able to use if for submission to Carolina Country magazine.

Please let me know as soon as you can, if you will be able to re-write the article or if you have another article that we can use for this month’s submission.”

McCann of Advanced Energy told Policy Watch the email “provided guidance” for the “On the House” column, “which is dedicated to home improvement and energy efficiency.”

Lindsey Listrom, a spokeswoman for the NCEMC, denied that Carolina Country has deemed topics off-limits for publication. Listrom said “energy industry news is addressed in other parts of the publication.”

However, in a review of nearly six years of the magazine’s issues, there were only two mentions of climate change: An unsigned editorial from 2013 opposing the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and a March 2018 “On the House” column written by McKenzie, which  advised that “using energy wisely is always the most cost-effective step to reducing our use of natural resources and contribution to climate change.”

McKenzie told Policy Watch that in 2015, a previous editor changed the words in a story from “climate change” to “natural environment” — and provided as evidence a draft of the story and the version that was eventually published.

Not until 2018, she said, did she receive a specific list of topics to avoid. “They noticed I had started to touch on these topics,” McKenzie said.

In a January 2018, McKenzie drafted an article about the faith-based environmental movement entitled “Caring for Creation.” Gates removed a reference in the piece to North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light [7] – a state chapter of an inter-denominational group focusing on a “hope-filled response to climate change.” NCIPL has also protested the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, co-owned by Duke Energy and Dominion. Both those utilities sell power to the local electric co-operatives.

In an email, Gates referred Policy Watch to several Carolina Country articles that reference low-carbon emissions. “We include content that encourages cooperative members to pursue impactful measures like energy efficiency, beneficial electrification and other efforts that will ultimately help reduce costs and carbon emissions. We often receive positive reader feedback about this coverage,” Gates said.

None of the articles, however, connects the dots between carbon dioxide and climate change. There is also no mention of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas produced by the natural gas industry. Nor do the pieces explain why reducing carbon emissions — the central tenet of Gov. Cooper’s new Clean Energy Plan [8] — is crucial to blunting the ferocity of the ongoing climate crisis.

The United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change released a sobering 1,100-page report [9] last week. It found that holding global average temperature below 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels will require substantial changes in the day-to-day activities of individuals, families, communities, governments and the private sector.

The previous “On the House” columnist, Arnie Katz worked for Advanced Energy for nearly 30 years as the director of training and a senior building science consultant. He also focused on energy efficiency and affordable housing.

“There were times when I mentioned environmental benefits and I didn’t get censored,” Katz told Policy Watch. “But climate change wasn’t nearly as hot of a topic then.”

Katz said Carolina Country could play an important role in educating its readership about not only how climate change could directly harm them, but how to avoid those harms. Nearly a quarter-million households live in coastal areas serviced by electric co-ops.

“One would hope that the rapidly accelerating impacts would lead to rational ways to educate their members rather than pretending climate change doesn’t exist,” Katz said, “especially for co-ops along the coast most vulnerable to its effects.”

McKenzie acknowledges that Advanced Energy has ended her contract with Carolina Country, effective next year, as the number of contracted “On the House” columns has decreased from 12 to six and now, to zero. But that’s not why she’s coming forward now, she said.

“This is a huge lost opportunity. We have an opportunity to stop the climate from changing,” said McKenzie, the mother of two boys, ages 6 and 2. “This goes beyond my children. My friends’ homes are flooding in the 500-year flood plain. It’s impacting the health of kids and families right now.”

McKenzie, who has a degree in architecture from NC State, praised the Advanced Energy staff for “caring deeply about the environment and North Carolina and doing amazing work in all sorts of fields.”

McKenzie previously worked for Advanced Energy for 11 months through the AmeriCorps program. In that role, she consulted with builders to ensure new Habitat for Humanity homes, many in rural North Carolina, met required energy efficiency standards.

“I’ve been in these communities. They’re the heart and soul of my work,” she said. “It’s doing a disservice by not sharing information with people about how their energy generation is harming the world.”