By Bruce Henderson – firstname.lastname@example.org
State lawmakers are considering a measure that would limit how North Carolina prepares for sea-level rise, which many scientists consider one of the surest results of climate change.
Federal authorities say the North Carolina coast is vulnerable because of its low, flat land and thin fringe of barrier islands. A state-appointed science panel has reported that a 1-meter rise in sea level is likely by 2100.
The calculation, prepared for the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, was intended to help the state plan for rising water that could threaten 2,000 square miles. Critics say it could thwart economic development on just as large a scale.
A coastal economic development group called NC-20 attacked the report, insisting the scientific research it cited is flawed. The science panel last month confirmed its findings, recommending that they be reassessed every five years.
But 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 prediction from 1 meter (about 39 inches) to 15 inches by 2100.
Politics and economics in play
Several local governments on the coast have passed resolutions against sea-level rise policies.
When the General Assembly convened this month, Republican legislators went further.
They circulated a bill that authorizes only the coastal commission to calculate how fast the sea is rising. It said the calculations must be based only on historic trends – leaving out the accelerated rise that climate scientists widely expect this century if warming increases and glaciers melt.
The bill, a substitute for an unrelated measure the N.C. House passed last year, has not been introduced. State legislative officials say they can’t predict how it might be changed, or when or whether it will emerge.
Longtime East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs, a science panel member who studies the evolution of the coast, said the 1-meter estimate is squarely within the mainstream of research.
“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,” he said of the proposed legislation. “You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms.”
NC-20 Chairman Tom Thompson, economic development director in Beaufort County, said his members – many of them county managers and other economic development officials – are convinced that climate changes and sea-level rises are part of natural cycles. Climate scientists who say otherwise, he believes, are wrong.
The group’s critiques quote scientists who believe the rate of sea-level rise is actually slowing. NC-20 says the state should rely on historical trends until acceleration is detected. The computer models that predict a quickening rate could be inaccurate, it says.
“If you’re wrong and you start planning today at 39 inches, you could lose millions of dollars in development and 2,000 square miles would be condemned as a flood zone,” Thompson said. “Is it really a risk to wait five years and see?”
State planners concerned
State officials say the land below the 1-meter elevation would not be zoned as a flood zone and off-limits to development. Planners say it’s crucial to allow for rising water when designing bridges, roads, and sewer lines that will be in use for decades.
“We’re concerned about it,” said Philip Prete, an environmental planner in Wilmington, which will soon analyze the potential effects of rising water on infrastructure. “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.”
Other states, he said, are “certainly embracing planning.”
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.
NC-20 says the state should plan for 8 inches of rise by 2100, based on the historical trend in Wilmington.
The science panel based its projections on records at the northern coast town of Duck, where the rate is twice as fast, and factored in the accelerated rise expected to come later. Duck was chosen, the panel said, because of the quality of its record and site on the open ocean.
The panel cites seven studies that project global sea level will rise as much as 1 meter, or more, by 2100. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated in 2007 a rise of no more than 23 inches, but did not factor in the melting land ice that many scientists now expect.
NC-20’s science adviser, Morehead City physicist John Droz, says he consulted with 30 sea-level experts, most of them not named in his latest critique of the panel’s work. He says the 13-member panel failed to do a balanced review of scientific literature, didn’t use the best available science and made unsupported assumptions.
“I’m not saying these people are liars,” Thompson said. “I’m saying they have a passion for sea-level rise and they can’t give it up.”
John Dorman of the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, which is preparing a study of sea-level impact, said an “intense push” by the group and state legislators led to key alterations.
Instead of assuming a 1-meter, worst-case rise, he said, the study will report the impact of seas that rise only 3.9, 7.8, 11.7 and 15.6 inches by 2100. The 1-meter analysis will be available to local governments that request it.
“It’s not the product we had put the grant out for,” Dorman said, referring to the $5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that’s paying for the study. Coastal communities will still find the work useful, he predicts.
The backlash on the coast centers on the question of whether sea-level rise will accelerate, said Bob Emory, chairman of the Coastal Resources Commission.
Emory, who lives in New Bern, said the commission deleted wording from its proposed sea-level rise policy that hinted at new regulations in order to find common ground. “Any remaining unnecessarily inflammatory language that’s still in there, we want to get out,” he said.
New information will be incorporated as it comes out, he said.
“There are people who disagree on the science. There are people who worry about what impact even talking about sea-level rise will have on development,” Emory said. “It’s my objective to have a policy that makes so much sense that people would have trouble picking at it.”
In written comments, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources said the legislation that circulated earlier this month appeared consistent with the coastal commission’s policy changes.
But the department warned of the “unintended impacts” of not allowing agencies other than the coastal commission to develop sea-level rise policies. The restriction could undermine the Division of Emergency Management’s study, it said, and the ability of transportation and emergency-management planners to address rising waters.
The N.C. Coastal Federation, the region’s largest environmental group, said the bill could hurt local governments in winning federal planning grants. Insurance rates could go up, it says.
Relying solely on historical trends, the group said, is like “being told to make investment decisions strictly on past performance and not being able to consider market trends and research.”