New Law in North Carolina Bans Latest Scientific Predictions of Sea-Level Rise

The latest science is off limits for North Carolina policymakers.

August 2, 2012, 12:54 PM

Aug. 2, 2012— -- A new law in North Carolina will ban the state from basing coastal policies on the latest scientific predictions of how much the sea level will rise, prompting environmentalists to accuse the state of disrespecting climate science.

The law has put the state in the spotlight for what critics have called nearsightedness and climate change denial, but its proponents said the state needed to put a moratorium on predictions of sea level rise until scientific techniques improve.

The law was drafted in response to an estimate by the state's Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) that the sea level will rise by 39 inches in the next century, prompting fears of costlier home insurance and accusations of anti-development alarmism among residents and developers in the state's coastal Outer Banks region.

Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue had until Thursday to act on the bill known as House Bill 819, but she decided to let it become law by doing nothing.

The bill's passage in June triggered nationwide scorn by those who argued that the state was deliberately blinding itself to the effects of climate change. In a segment on the "Colbert Report," comedian Stephen Colbert mocked North Carolina lawmakers' efforts as an attempt to outlaw science.

"If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved," he joked.

The law, which began as a routine regulation on development permits but quickly grew controversial after the sea-level provision was added, restricts all sea-level predictions used to guide state policies for the next four years to those based on "historical data."

Tom Thompson, president of NC-20, a coastal development group and a key supporter of the law, said the science used to make the 39-inch prediction was flawed, and added that the resources commission failed to consider the economic consequences of preparing the coast for a one-meter rise in sea level, under which up to 2,000 square miles would be threatened.

A projection map showing land along the coast underwater would place the permits of many planned development projects in jeopardy. Numerous new flood zone areas would have to be drawn, new waste treatment plants would have to be built, and roads would have to be elevated. The endeavor would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, Thompson said.

"I don't want to say they're being dishonest, but they're pulling data out of their hip pocket that ain't working," he said of the commission panel that issued the prediction, the middle in a range of three predictions.

Thompson, who denies global warming, said the prediction was based on measurements at a point on the North Carolina coast that is unrepresentative of the rest of the coast.

But the costs Thompson decries as wasteful are to the law's opponents a necessary pill the state must swallow if it is going to face up to the challenge of protecting the coast from the effects of climate change.

State Rep. Deborah Ross, a forceful critic of the bill, compared it to burying one's "head in the sand."

"I go to the doctor every year. If I'm not fine, I'd rather know now than in four years," said Ross, a Democrat who represents inland Greensboro, N.C., but owns property on the coast. "This is like going to the doctor and saying you're not going to get a test on a problem."

Its supporters counter that the law does not force the state to close its eyes to reality, but rather to base policy on more than a single model that produced what they believe are extreme results.

Republican State Rep. Pat McElraft, who drafted the law, called the law a "breather" that allows the state to "step back" and continue studying sea -level rise for the next several years with the goal of achieving a more accurate prediction model.

"Most of the environmental side say we're ignoring science, but the bill actually asks for more science," she said. "We're not ignoring science, we're asking for the best science possible, the best extrapolation possible, looking at the historical data also. We just need to make sure that we're getting the proper answers."

As it thrust North Carolina into a national debate about climate politics, the bill became a lightning rod at home.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Perdue said her office received 3,400 emails opposing the bill in the first week after it passed the Republican-controlled state legislature.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), sea level rise along the portion of the East Coast between North Carolina and Massachusetts is accelerating at three to four times the global rate. A USGS report published in the journal Nature Climate Change in June predicted that sea level along the coast of that region, which it called a "hotspot," would rise up to 11.4 inches higher than the global average rise by the end of the 21st century.

The historical political clout wielded by North Carolina's developers has led some critics of the law to accuse legislators backing it to promote those who line the pockets of their campaigns.

The largest industry contributors to McElraft's campaigns have been real estate agents and developers, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Her top contributor since she was elected to the General Assembly in 2007 has been the North Carolina Association of Realtors, followed by the North Carolina Home Builders' Association.

McElraft, who is a former real estate agent and lives on Barrier Island off the coast, denied that campaign contributions ever influence her decisions as a lawmaker, and said her votes have not always favored increased development.

More than simply protecting developers, the new law protects homeowners from an overactive state government that would take away their right to build on their own property, McElraft said. Given an increased projected risk of flooding, insurance companies would likely charge coastal property owners, who already pay higher premiums, a concern Rep. Ross said she shared.

Ross, though, said she would rather pay for a more expensive insurance policy on her coastal home than be uncertain about whether it will be wiped out by the Atlantic Ocean in a few decades.

Gov. Perdue released a statement Thursday that gave a qualified endorsement of the law while urging lawmakers to develop a coherent approach to sea-level rise.

"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," Perdue wrote.

"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."