Glaciers are melting, ice sheets are collapsing, sea levels are set to rise. What to do? Some communities are getting ready for disappearing coastlines. But North Carolina lawmakers are trying to legislate the problem away.
Under House Bill 819, all public bodies, such as state agencies and county governments, would be forbidden from accounting for accelerating sea level rise as they plan for the future. The bill (PDF) says:
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 Bill Chameides, dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, writes at the Huffington Post, taxpayers could be the ones ultimately on the hook for this policy.
Should this legislation come to fruition, North Carolina would be planning for a sea-level rise of about one foot rather than the scientifically projected three feet by the end of the century. That leaves a whole lot of water unaccounted for. And it could leave whole communities up coastal creeks paying for roads and bridges that no longer make sense to maintain in the face of rising seas.
Earlier this year, I reported on the organized citizen opposition to planning for sea level rise in North Carolina.
In 2010, a panel of scientists examined peer-reviewed literature on how quickly the ocean could rise around the state’s coast. They released a report concluding that North Carolina should plan for a meter of sea level rise by 2100.
Once the report went public, the backlash came swiftly.
Citizens began submitting detailed comments, criticizing the report almost sentence-by-sentence, said Antonio Rodriguez, an associate professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a contributor to it.
The comments took Rodriguez aback.
“I wasn’t surprised that people didn’t like the number,” he said. “But I was very surprised by the way they went about it.”
Critics identified articles from peer-reviewed journals that found little acceleration in sea level rise, such as a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Coastal Research and a 2006 paper in Geophysical Research Letters.
“There are those papers out there,” Rodriguez said. “Part of our job was to weed through the research and identify the best research to base these predictions for North Carolina on — and not emphasize other research that is not as high-quality.”
Citizens also repeated arguments popularized by websites skeptical of climate change. In a lengthy critique, Morehead City resident John Droz, Jr., pointed to work by skeptics Steve McIntyre, S. Fred Singer, and Nils-Axel Mörner as evidence that the science panel’s work was flawed.
“It appears that they felt that they had to come up with something to get people’s attention,” wrote Droz, a board member of NC-20, a group that has been outspoken against restrictions on coastal development. “In the unscientific society we currently find ourselves in, it was an easy matter for them to find other like-minded researchers who had constructed computer models that projected wildly speculative outcomes.”
Douglas Harris, a commissioner for coastal Carteret County, told The Yale Forum that imposing regulations in preparation for sea level rise would create significant hardships for North Carolina residents. For example, a policy accounting for a six-inch rise in water tables would prevent officials from issuing new permits for septic tanks in the eastern portion of the county, he said.
He added that he questions the science panel’s projection.
“State bureaucrats are convinced that the present nonexistent increasing rate of sea level rise will increase rapidly in the future,” he wrote in an e-mail message. State officials, he wrote, “are aggressively ‘educating’ and manipulating local government officials to impose 39-inch sea-level-rise planning immediately.”