North Carolina Governor Perdue Balks on Sea Level Rise Science

August 2, 2012 | 12:25 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

It’s official: North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue will join the state’s legislature today in burying a $5 million study estimating sea level rise off the North Carolina coast due to global warming. Her pusillanimous move follows months of public controversy that have subjected the state to much ridicule, and for good reason. The sordid tale shows the influence that developers and other special interests can have on the way that states and communities are able to use science to adapt to climate change and protect the public.

The blow by blow:

North Carolina received a $5 million federal grant to produce a report assessing the effects of sea level rise on the state’s coast. A panel of 13 scientists prepared the study for the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission, projecting a 39-inch sea level increase by 2100. More than a dozen science panels from coastal states around the country produced similar projections. North Carolina is particularly vulnerable due to the low elevation of its coastline.

Cape Hattaras Lighthouse

The Cape Hattaras Lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet inland in 1999 because of instability due to sea level rise and erosion. Photo: Flickr user Olivandr

Enter NC-20, a group formed in 2010 to fight water regulations and protect developer interests. A main spokesperson for the group is John Droz, fellow of the American Tradition Institute, a shadowy organization making a name for itself by harassing climate scientists. Droz, who is not trained in climate change science, often fails to disclose that he owns coastal property valued at $900,000 when he attempts to undermine climate change science and advocates against wind power.

NC-20 denounced the science panel’s findings. Incredibly, the group argued that sea level rise predictions should only be made based on historical trends, ignoring conditions under which sea level rise might accelerate.

Why is this ridiculous?  When I was 12, I went through a growth spurt. I shot up four inches over the course of a year, from 5’3 to 5’7. Based on that trend, if we use a linear model, I should be nearly eighteen feet tall by age fifty. A scary thought. Like height, it doesn’t make sense to predict sea level rise using linear models.

The science panel affirmed that its analysis was sound and would be reassessed every five years to be consistent with the best available science. So NC-20 took its case to the state legislature and found sympathetic ears.

Ignoring Science, Inviting Ridicule

In late spring, State Senator David Rouzer introduced legislation that would have prohibited the Coastal Resources Commission from making development plans based on scientific predictions that sea level rise will accelerate. Rouzer lists an association with the American Legislative Exchange Council on his Linked In profile and used to work for Senator Jesse Helms, who among many other things is famous for filibustering against the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday. But I digress. From Senator Rouzer’s bill:

“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 seas-level rise may be extrapolated linearly. ”

The world laughed. “NC Considers Making Sea Level Rise Illegal,” wrote Scientific American blogger Scott Huler.
“It would be a tragedy to lose precious coastal wildlife habitats to coastal flooding,” said Stephen Colbert. “Those habitats should be lost to developers’ bulldozers.”

The bill passed the Senate. But embarrassed by the well-deserved shaming, the state House of Representatives pushed for a compromise that pulled out the language legislating the scientific process. Many people stopped paying attention.

Hurricane Earl

“You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms,” said East Carolina geologist Stan Riggs to the Charlotte Observer. Photo of Hurricane Earl in September 2010 taken by NASA.

Unfortunately, the “compromise” bill still prohibits state agencies from using the 39-inch rise estimate in planning. To make up for the lost investment, the new bill provides for more research to be done over the next three years, followed by a full year of public comment.

It is not yet clear what the state will do when they get similar results. But we know one thing for sure: the legislation prohibits the state from doing anything about sea level rise until at least July 1, 2016. Delay is a common tool used by those who are threatened by scientific findings. If you don’t like the results, ask for more studies.

Kicking the Can Down the Road

Governor Perdue has until today to veto the legislation. But she has indicated that she will let the bill become law without her signature. Her excuse for refusing to veto the bill was laughable:

“North Carolina should not ignore science when making public policy decisions. House Bill 819 will become law because it allows local governments to use their own scientific studies to define rates of sea level change. I urge the General Assembly to revisit this issue and develop an approach that gives state agencies the flexibility to take appropriate action in response to sea level change within the next four years.”

Is the town of Manteo, NC, population 1,000, supposed to commission its own $5 million study? It would be a huge and unrealistic waste of resources for each town to conduct research that would likely come to the same conclusion as countless other studies. The science is in already. It’s been studied. It’s robust.

Furthermore, mitigating climate change along the coast takes coordination among municipalities. And how can state agencies have the “flexibility to take appropriate action” if they are prohibited from using the best available science?

She’s right in one way. North Carolina should not ignore science. But in today’s decision, that’s exactly what she’s doing. The state is kicking the can down the road, telling local communities that they are on their own.

This is not a strategy that will end well. The state has the responsibility to plan for the future. Roads, bridges, utilities, and other infrastructure are supposed to last for decades. Rising sea levels must be taken into account when planning.

“For the state to tie our hands and not let us use the information that the state science panel has come up with makes it overly restrictive,” said a North Carolina environmental planner to the Charlotte Observer.

Sea Level Rise Won’t Wait

Unfortunately for the North Carolina legislature, and the state’s residents, nature will not be able to read and adapt to the new law. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey reported in June (while North Carolina legislators were busy digging holes big enough for their heads) that since 1990, the rate of sea level rise along the East Coast was three to four times larger than the rate globally. Just yesterday, a Senate panel examined studies demonstrating that the East Coast and the Gulf Coast experienced the fastest pace of sea level rise compared to other coasts on our planet from 1955 to 2003.

“We’re throwing this science out completely, and what’s proposed is just crazy for a state that used to be a leader in marine science,” said East Carolina geologist Stan Riggs to the Charlotte Observer. “You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms.”

What does this mean for those on the coast? Stronger storms for one. Storms with the same meteorological components as twenty years ago will have a much greater impact because of the increase in wave size and storm surges.

Enjoy the surf. Just be sure to bail before you hit your neighbor’s front porch.