ImperiumWatch: Pick-and-Choose Science

The North Carolina state Senate has passed a bill banning the use of updated climate change science in proposals to deal with rising sea levels along its coast. The vote comes in response to demands by NC20, a group spearheaded by real estate interests in the state’s 20 coastal counties.

“Our first concern is very simple,” reads a statement on NC20’s Web page. “If we show a 39-inch sea level on top of the existing flood levels in the NC20 counties, a huge amount of land, well over a million acres, will be added to a flood zone map that is drawn by the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. That could cause any number of adverse economic consequences…”

Among those consequences: difficulty obtaining insurance, building permits and financing for developments. Land sales, even sales of large tracts of timber, would have been far less profitable if the 39-inch estimate had remained the basis for coastal planning, the NC20 website reminds its sympathizers.

In other words, people might not be eager to invest in or buy new homes in developments that might be inundated, and mean-spirited entities like state and local governments and insurance companies might not be enthusiastic about the developments, either.

The solution? Why, just pick the science you like and lobby the Legislature to build it into the law. The bill passed by the state Senate requires policymakers to use “historic” data in plans for the seacoast’s future, not current estimates about rising sea levels.

The estimates NC20 wants to see used posit a three- to 14-inch rise in ocean levels by 2100, rather than the 29- or 39-inch rise predicted by scientists—though not long after the law passed, a new study by U.S. Geological Survey researchers predicted that the northeastern United States will see sea levels rise more rapidly than other parts of the world, and that the rise might be eight to 11 inches higher even than the 39-inch rise predicted earlier. (The three- to 14-inch figure NC20 prefers comes from an International Panel on Climate Change estimate that leaves out the effects of melting ice.)

NC20’s website describes how the group defanged the coastal planning documents based on the 39-inch prediction. Its narrative of events last winter offers an inside look at the real estate interests’ lobbying tactics:

“Much to our alarm,” the website informs its readers, “a public hearing was set for action by the Coastal Resources Commission at a meeting in Beaufort in December to mandate the use of 39″ in all land use plans. Realizing the danger, members of the NC20 Board of Directors led by Larry Baldwin appealed to Bob Emory, the chairman of the CRC, the very day before the vote on the policy was to have taken place. To his everlasting credit, Mr. Emory immediately perceived the problems of such an abrupt move. The following day, NC 20 members were subjected to a pleasant surprise in a presentation by Tancred Miller, Coastal Policy Analyst, in which he presented the completely rewritten Science Panel report with about three-fourths of it redlined out! True to his word, Mr. Emory removed any mandates, ‘shalls’, ‘musts’, etc. Instead, the CRC recommended that the policy simply be one of advising counties to plan for a 39″ SLR [sea level rise].”

At press time, the North Carolina House had another idea about how to deal with the surging seas: bury their heads in the beach sand with a five-year moratorium on consideration of global warming-caused sea level rise in planning for the maintenance of coastal areas.

Orrin Pilkey, a geology professor at Duke University, has lent his voice to a chorus of protest from North Carolina residents who are concerned about the Legislature’s capitulation to real estate interests. Those with coastal property, he points out, are, or will soon be, concerned by such issues as whether they should “abandon, move, elevate or dike,” and whether they should continue to invest in community infrastructure.

“People in low-lying soundfront communities have the right to weigh the evidence from all sides—the scientific community as well as NC20—and decide for themselves how best to plan and prepare for coming years,” Pilkey wrote in an op-ed that has appeared in the Virginian-Pilot, a paper that covers coastal Virginia towns such as Norfolk and Virginia Beach, which are also trying to plan for sea level rise. “Unfortunately, they may not have the opportunity.”

Author: Stephanie Kraft

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