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Bill Chameides

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Climate Change: North Carolinians Hope to Stop It in Its Tracks

Posted: 05/22/2012 7:16 pm

Crossposted with The Green Grok.

Legislation would just plain do away with global warming.

Government: too big or not big enough. It's a hot-button issue this election season. Lots of politicians think that government has gotten too big and powerful and needs to be cut down to size. Others see government as an agent of good and argue for more governmental power. Apparently nowhere is the latter sentiment more alive than in the halls of the North Carolina Legislature. Most politicians work to legislate the laws of society; in North Carolina some politicians hope to legislate the laws of nature. If that ain't governmental power, I don't know what is. 

The story begins with sea-level rise along the North Carolina coast.

Sea-Level Rise and North Carolina

The greatest threat that climate change poses to North Carolina could very well be sea-level rise. Some 2,250 square miles of the state's broad, low-lying coastal plain (or twice the land mass of Rhode Island) lie at an elevation of just five feet (1.5 meter) or less above sea level. Much of both the Outer Banks and the coastal plain sandwiched between the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds lie at one meter or less. (See elevation map.)

With sea level on the rise, the already tenuous system of bridges and roads linking the state's famed barrier islands to the mainland becomes even more imperiled and costly to maintain. Ultimately, sea-level rise could sound the death knell for much of the state's economic investments along the coast.

In recognition of these facts, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission asked a science panel to study the problem and make recommendations. With plenty of caveats about uncertainties and such, the panel recommended [pdf] that "a rise of 1 meter (39 inches) be adopted as the amount of anticipated rise by 2100, for policy development and planning purposes." (A summary of the panel's work and its reception by the State Legislature can be found here. Full report here [pdf].)

The Battle Is Joined, Sea Level ... Enjoined

It turns out that a projected sea-level rise of about one meter over the next 90 years or so is just plain unacceptable to certain North Carolinian factions. One such group, calling itself the NC-20 (for the 20 coastal counties its members supposedly hail from), is being driven, some have speculated, by coastal developers who fear that state and local policies based on such a rise in sea level would put the kibosh on their plans to build new condos, subdivisions, hotels, and the like.

According to the group's website, NC-20 "concentrate[s] primarily on actions to prevent regulation and rule making not based on science, to establish or maintain fairness in State funding (e.g. DOT), and to oppose predatory pricing in the areas of homeowners and dwelling insurance."

Apparently, even though the findings of the panel were based on science, they crossed the line of acceptability for NC-20 and so the group decided to work to quash the science panel's report. Such efforts are proudly described in an NC-20 report [pdf] entitled "Sea Level Rise: The Story from Beginning to End." It trumpets the group's "substantial victory with over-zealous State bureaucrats who were attempting to impose a 39" sea level rise planning mandate on all NC 20 counties."

According to NC-20, once the dust settled, the Coastal Resources Commission dismissed the science panel's findings. As best as I can tell, this is not literally true but pretty close. The commission has not actually dismissed the science panel's report, per se. It has simply directed one of its committees to prepare a planning document based on the report but without any mention of accelerating sea-level rise.

State Legislature Gets Into Act

So impressed with the ability of NC-20 to put an end to sea-level rise single-handedly, the North Carolina Senate decided to go one step further and legislate it away.

In late April a revised version of a bill from the state House surfaced in the Senate that would enshrine NC-20's view. This new bill [pdf] would:

  • limit sea-level rise to historical rates circa 1900,
  • specify that sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise, and
  • disallow consideration of scenarios with accelerated rates of sea-level rise.

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.

As of this writing, the jury's still out on the sea-level bill's fate. All this time I've been worrying about what will happen to my kids as a result of climate change. It was clear to me that we needed some really innovative, out-of-the-box solutions. Turns out we can just legislate it away. Big government to the rescue.

 

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