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North Carolina Bill Would Require Coastal Communities To Ignore Global Warming Science

Joseph Romm's picture
American Progress
  • Member since 2018
  • 1,651 items added with 350,589 views
  • Jun 1, 2012

Some North Carolina GOP legislators want to stop the use of science to plan for the future. They are circulating a bill that would force coastal counties to ignore actual observations and the best science-based projections in planning for future sea level rise.

King Canute thought he had the power to hold back the tide (in the apocryphal legend). These all-too-real lawmakers want to go one better and mandate a formula that projects a sea level rise of at most 12 inches this century, far below what the science now projects.

A state-appointed science panel reviewed the recent literature and reported that a 1-meter (39 inch) rise is likely by 2100. Many coastal studies experts think a level of 5 to 7 feet should be used, since you typically plan for the plausible worst-case scenario, especially with expensive, long-lived infrastructure.

The 2011 report by the National Academy of Science for the U.S. Navy on the national security implications of climate change concluded:

Based on recent peer-reviewed scientific literature, the Department of the Navy should expect roughly 0.4 to 2 meters global average sealevel rise by 2100, with a most likely value of about 0.8 meter. Projections of local sea-level rise could be much larger and should be taken into account for naval planning purposes,

Rob Young, a geology professor at Western Carolina University and a member of the state science panel, pointed out to the North Carolina Coastal Federation (NCCF) that this proposed law stands against the conclusions of “every major science organization on the globe.” Young notes, “Every other state in the country is planning on three-feet of sea level rise or more.” The Charlotte Observer notes:

Maine is preparing for a rise of up to 2 meters by 2100, Delaware 1.5 meters, Louisiana 1 meter and California 1.4 meters. Southeastern Florida projects up to a 2-foot rise by 2060.

In place of science, the bill would mandate that only the Division of Coastal Management can put out an estimate of the rate of sea-level rise rate — and they must use an arbitrary, low-ball formula:

These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

As the National Academies report to the Navy pointed out, observations suggest SLR won’t be linear: Thanks to satellite data, “it is now possible to detect acceleration in sea-level rise over the past few decades.”

Here is NASA’s website with the data plotted showing the recent acceleration:


See also the Real Climate post, “Is Sea-Level Rise Accelerating?

A 2011 study led by the U.S. Jet Propulsion Laboratory using satellite data concluded, “The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass at an accelerating pace.” The JPL news release explains how the authors concluded we face 1 foot of sea level rise by 2050:

The authors conclude that, if current ice sheet melting rates continue for the next four decades, their cumulative loss could raise sea level by 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) by 2050. When this is added to the predicted sea level contribution of 8 centimeters (3.1 inches) from glacial ice caps and 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) from ocean thermal expansion, total sea level rise could reach 32 centimeters (12.6 inches).

Sadly, even if this inane bill never becomes law, anti-science forces are already winning the battle to block sensible adaptation to global warming in North Carolina, one of the states most threatened by sea level rise.

A coastal economic development group called NC-20 attacked the state science panel’s recommendation to the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission to plan for 1 meter of SLR. And even though the panel reconfirmed its findings again in April, the Charlotte Observer reports, “NC-20, named for the 20 coastal counties, appears to be winning its campaign to undermine them”:

The Coastal Resources Commission agreed to delete references to planning benchmarks – such as the 1-meter prediction – and new development standards for areas likely to be inundated.

The N.C. Division of Emergency Management, which is using a $5 million federal grant to analyze the impact of rising water, lowered its worst-case scenario from 1 meter to 15 inches by 2100.

Several local governments on the coast have passed resolutions against sea-level rise policies.

NC-20’s science adviser, is physicist John Droz, who Climate Progress readers know as a long-time wind opponent — see Memo: Group Wants To Create Fake Grassroots Wind ‘Subversion’ Campaign That ‘Should Appear As A Groundswell’. He is also a senior fellow at the ultra-conservative American Tradition Institute. ATI is devoted to spreading doubt about climate change, opposing state-level renewable energy targets, and stripping away environmental regulations. The ATI is so extreme that it was denounced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for contributing to an “environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas.”

One North Carolinian writing in Scientific American said the proposed bill is “exactly like saying, do not predict tomorrow’s weather based on radar images of a hurricane swirling offshore, moving west towards us with 60-mph winds and ten inches of rain. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east. Don’t use radar and barometers; use the Farmer’s Almanac and what grandpa remembers.”

The irony is that North Carolina celebrates scientific and technological achievement on its license plate and state quarter – the Wright Brothers “First Flight” at Kittyhawk. Oh, and its state motto is Esse quam videri, which means “To be, rather than to seem.”

You’d think such a state would pass laws based on science and what actually is, rather than what seems to be popular with narrow economic and ideological interests.

Eirik Johnson's picture
Eirik Johnson on Jun 5, 2012

Bad science or not, does North Carolina have any choice?  My guess is that preparations for sea level rises more than a foot or so would bankrupt the state, and I suppose the legislature has the right to act on that basis.  As I read the exerpts of the law, it would be to prevent preparations to stick it out and fight rising sea levels–not require the use of bad science to pretend they won’t happen.  Lord only knows how much econonomic, environmental, and social damage could be done if North Carolinians hunker down and try to fortify the coastline.  It looks likely that coastlines will move east, and if so, folks will just have to move to places on dry land.  If the sea levels don’t rise, then North Carolina got lucky and didn’t panic pointlessly.  The real problem is that too much of that future seafloor is insured.  I don’t see how the law in question would prevent insurance companies from raising rates in view of honest science.,  Other laws might–including some on the books in Washington.  That’s where we ought to look.  The question of who pays for the destruction of North Carolina’s coastline is political,not scientific.  Most of us on this site probably live a safe way inland from Cape Hateras, so not surprisingly I guess we’d all support ruin for those who live there.  I certainly do–all coastal land development has been pretty obviously environmentally unjustifiable for decades, and pushed by big-money buyers who ought to take the hit; ye reap what ye sow, says the scripture.  But I can see whyt folks down thereabouts might see the matter differently.




Mike Barnard's picture
Mike Barnard on Jun 13, 2012

Having spent time in both North Carolina and the Netherlands I can say wtih some certainty that centuries of preparation in the Netherlands are not being replicated in decades in the Carolinas.  

While adaptation is a key part of AGW response, it’s important to note that AGW-denial is preventing any response, especially in the USA.

Joseph Romm's picture
Thank Joseph for the Post!
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