Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why North Carolina Banned Sea-Level Science

Every school child has learned about attempts by rulers to suppress science. Copernicus hid his findings till after his death, rather than being burned at the stake. Galileo recanted his proof that the Earth was not the motionless center of a revolving universe, and thereby avoided the same unpleasant fate. More recently, the famous “monkey trial” in 1925 tested whether a state could outlaw the teaching of science. And in one of the world's all-time greatest tragedies, more than 20 million Chinese perished in 1959 because of Mao's shackles on science.

In recent years, people of every faith (or none) have come to think that these sorts of displays were far behind us.
But this summer, the state of North Carolina turned back the clock one more time. The legislature passed a law forbidding state and local agencies to use the latest science for predicting sea-level rise in coastal planning – ignoring the input of all major coastal science organizations in the U.S. and abroad.

Here’s how it happened:

In 2010, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) requested a report from a 13-member panel of the most reputable coastal scientists in the state to summarize the science regarding sea-level rise and recommend the expected increase that coastal planners should consider for the century ahead.  The panel worked for nine months, and produced a review of the most current scientific literature.  It was externally peer-reviewed by out-of-state scientists.  The final recommendation was for the state to plan for 39 inches of sea level rise by the end of the century.

39 inches of sea-level rise? It wasn’t really very surprising. Maine is planning for two meters by 2100; Delaware, 1.5 meters; Louisiana, one meter; California, 1.4 meters; and South Florida, two feet. 39 inches placed North Carolina pretty near the middle of the coastal planning spectrum.

Cape Hatteras: A sand spit in harm's way
The science panel’s report wasn’t based on guesswork. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences advised the U.S. Navy – which is hugely exposed – to plan on up to 2 meters of sea-level rise this century.  The U.S. Jet Propulsion Lab warned that ice-sheet and glacier melting are accelerating, and predicted that sea levels will rise one foot by mid-century, and faster thereafter. The inter-agency U.S. Global Change Research Program predicted 3-4 feet this century, but warned that new research makes the range “substantially greater than previously projected.”

All these researchers have noted that seas are warming, driving thermal expansion; and that mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets are melting. Together, these factors are raising sea levels at much faster rates than the eight inches that occurred in the 20th century.

But back in North Carolina, the legislature wasn’t happy. In a landslide, the state Senate voted to forbid coastal planners from doing anything other than to extrapolate from the eight inches of sea-level rise that occurred in the 20th century.

Across the country and beyond, the state’s attempt to muzzle science was greeted with ridicule. A leading researcher from East Carolina University said: “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. You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms.”

A writer for Scientific American likened it to saying: “Do not predict tomorrow’s weather based on radar images of a hurricane swirling offshore …. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east. Don’t use radar and barometers; use the Farmer’s Almanac and what grandpa remembers.”

Even “The Colbert Report” got in on the act. "If your science gives you a result you don't like,” said the comedian, “pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved."

Faced with virtually unanimous contempt from the science community, the North Carolina legislature did some quick maneuvering. They withdrew their bill, and replaced it with one lasting only four years, prohibiting the CRC from implementing the science panel’s findings and calling on scientists to “do further studies” (which presumably, they were already doing without being told). The bill became law on August 1, 2012, when Gov. Beverly Perdue decided not to veto the measure.

Some will now dismiss North Carolinians as anti-scientific bumpkins, but this simply cannot be. The state is home to respected research universities such as Duke, UNC, NC State, Wake Forest and East Carolina, plus leading colleges such as Davidson. The Research Triangle is home to many high-tech companies, with legions of highly-educated employees. And the Outer Banks and Pamlico Peninsula are widely known to be especially vulnerable to coastal flooding. This state is home to plenty of brain power, and knows that it is highly exposed to sea levels.

Danger ahead: higher seas, strong storms
So what could be going on in Carolina, for such a law to tarnish the state’s reputation? Well, as always, it’s a good idea to follow the money.  Almost certainly, there are financial winners in losers in these kinds of games. This one is no exception.

It turns out that the force behind the legislation was a group called NC-20, comprised of real estate developers in North Carolina’s twenty coastal counties. NC-20’s chairman is director of a county economic development commission, and its president is a lobbyist for home builders on the Outer Banks. Its science advisor, with no background in coastal or climate science, is a senior fellow at a think tank tied to the fossil fuel industries.  NC-20 called the projected sea-level rise a "myth promoted by manmade global warming advocates."

The law’s primary legislative sponsor was state Rep. Pat McElraft , a real estate broker. Development interests have played a key role in financing Ms. McElraft's political career. The real estate industry has been the top contributor to her campaigns, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics database. Her single biggest contributor has been the N.C. Association of Realtors, followed by the N.C. Home Builders Association, according to the database.

North Carolina real estate developers and builders “saturate the General Assembly with contributions,” according to a report by Democracy North Carolina. The industry gave $664,000 to Gov. Perdue’s last campaign, was a top contributor to Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, and has been the top donor in prior campaigns of this year’s Republican gubernatorial candidate.

So what have the coastal real estate developers gotten in return for their largesse?  The anti-science law paints a pretty clear picture: The taxpayers of the state will build and maintain infrastructure for new developments in coastal flood plains; once they are sold, the profits go to the developers. 

The flood problem, however, belongs to American taxpayers and the new owners. Well, not so much the new owners. The state’s taxpayers are on the hook to maintain new roads, water and sewer systems, even after devastating coastal floods.  Federal taxpayers fund disaster assistance when storms flood these new developments as sea levels rise. 

But the new owners? Actually, they are covered by subsidized National Flood Insurance. When their homes are flooded or destroyed, American taxpayers from every state pick up the tab up to $350,000 per residence, and $1.0 million for commercial buildings. Taxpayers have already funded $19 billion of excess payments made for coastal insurance claims, and with rising sea levels, we’re headed for much more. So today, Carolinians can buy homes within reach of the rising seas, and Americans from every state will bail them out after coastal floods.

With the promise of big profits, and the taxpayers bearing all the risks, why wouldn’t North Carolina’s coastal developers cough up major dollars to ensure that state legislators turn a blind eye to the inevitable fate of their proposed building boom? There’s big money in coastal development, and the risks – while great – are largely borne by others.

What should be done?  Certainly, North Carolina voters should take a hard look at politicians who sell out their future state and local tax dollars to developers who finance their campaigns. But across the country, perhaps Americans should be asking whether it still makes sense for all of us to insure new coastal development. Especially in states which shut tight their eyes to avoid seeing what researchers everywhere are telling them.

“We don’t believe your climate change alarmism,” they seem to tell us. “But if it happens, you’d better be there to bail us out.”

I wonder how long the rest of us will continue to believe that this is such a good idea?

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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