Reports came across my desk last month that the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had been withholding a report about the local impact of climate change since November, 2011.
Everything about the story pointed to political interference, including the unexpected departure of former DNR Director John Frampton, who had led the state agency for eight years and spearheaded the climate report in question. The local press reported that Frampton had been forced out by a political appointee who had been named by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to head a self-described "business-friendly" board in charge of the state agency.
The case seemed to echo a similarly anti-science response to climate impacts last year in neighboring North Carolina. In that earlier case, North Carolina politicians had refused to accept a peer-reviewed scientific report on climate-related sea level rise that the state had commissioned and the state senate went so far as to pass a bill (later overturned) that specifically prohibited agencies and municipalities from using the latest scientific data on sea level rise in coastal management decisions.
Official explanations for the suppression of the report were less than satisfactory. Alvin Taylor, the current head of the DNR who replaced Frampton, noted only that the agency's "priorities have changed" since the report was completed. Thankfully in this case, however, the local reporting was strong. One local news outlet, TheState.com, not only obtained access to the suppressed report but published it in its entirety on its website.
The Public's Right to Know
The implications outlined in the 102-page report are indeed significant. Among the findings: South Carolina faces an average temperature rise of as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 70 years and can expect increased flooding on beaches and marshes, salt water intrusion into coastal rivers and freshwater aquifers that is likely to kill off or deplete some species of fish and potentially affect drinking-water supplies. According to the report, the state also faces the likelihood of more "dead zones" in the ocean off the coast with potentially perilous effects on the state's population of loggerhead sea turtles.
Reviewing the report, Andrew Rosenberg, a biologist and director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the report "a clear, straightforward, and science-based description of how South Carolina should meet the challenges of ongoing climate change." As Rosenberg put it: "Could it really be that the politicians in South Carolina don't want their constituents to know what is happening, nor their public servants to prepare to meet these challenges? How does that serve the public interest?"
A Welcome Reversal
It took the work of vigorous local press, as well as the spotlight of some national attention, but the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources this week belatedly made a welcome choice to officially release the report (that had already been leaked in its entirety), giving the people of South Carolina and their officials at least some of the science-based information they need to prepare for the many challenges presented by climate impacts. The outcome is certainly a lot better than trying to hide the information in a drawer.
Regrettably, the report's new preface takes a pass on the fact that scientists know that human activity is driving climate change, noting that "we do not profess to know why all of these changes seem to be occurring." But it still gets the fundamental point belatedly right in noting "...we do understand that we have a responsibility to stay abreast of the latest science as we strive to make the best decisions possible in the management of the state's natural resources."