RALEIGH — Most scientists agree the hills where the Wright brothers first took flight along the Outer Banks of North Carolina will someday be under water. The debate over exactly when that will happen is taking shape in state and local governments and has been fueled by both scientific speculations and late-night witticisms.
In North Carolina, a state-sponsored science panel warned sea levels could rise by more than 3 feet by 2100. So lawmakers supported by development interests responded with a bill to ban those figures. During their summer session, legislators moved to mandate that future trends be based solely upon historical data, which doesn’t account for the accelerated sea-level rise expected by many scientists. They said the move prevented the economic burdens of building farther from the coast or higher off the ground.
The North Carolina bill called for preparing for a much smaller 8-inch rise during the same period. The smaller projected rise means less regulation on coastal developments. But after international ridicule and a spot on the satirical television show “The Colbert Report,” lawmakers in the state’s majority-Republican Legislature backed off the move — instead opting for a scientific moratorium on any figures until 2016 while more studies are conducted. Gov. Beverly Perdue on Wednesday decided to let the bill become law without her signature.
The science panel pulled from a study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that predicts sea levels will rise somewhere between 7 inches and nearly 2 feet by 2100. Two years later, a report put out by scientists Martin Vermeer and Stefan Rahmstorf suggested a rise of up to 5 feet is possible. A 2010 report compiled by the Governing Board of the National Research Council sums up a myriad of different studies and explains that while there is some uncertainty about exactly how much sea levels will rise, there is wide consensus that sea levels will rise substantially for centuries to come.
Many U.S. scientists agree that rising temperatures, known among other things as global warming or climate change, will eventually lead to rising sea levels as ice at the Earth’s poles melts. However, opponents generally say those claims are overblown and that there is not enough evidence to suggest that will happen. Others say climate change is the result of natural climate cycles, not manmade from things like carbon emissions.
“It’s very unfortunate that they’re doing this,” said chief scientist Mike McCracken with the Climate Institute, a national climate change awareness nonprofit. “It’s not quite clear why. There’s a separate discussion about what sort of policies to take in response to it, but this is going to be happening and we have to figure out a way to deal with it.”
North Carolina is out front of the issue to regulate against what is generally accepted as scientific consensus. But other states have tested the waters, and even more could follow suit. The vast majority of coastal states do not legislate on “climate change,” which has become a politically charged term after being used as a substitute for the more politicized term “global warming.” Many states have laws that allow for coastal planning, but rarely do states mandate practices specifically on the rising seas.
In Virginia, legislators removed language about “sea-level rise” from a study bill. They replaced it with the phrase many lawmakers were more comfortable with — “recurrent flooding.” Politicians felt the previous language was left-leaning. Texas is working on a coastal plan to address the issue, but got some attention in 2010 when the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality tried to remove the terms “global warming” and “accelerated sea-level rise” from a publication it funded. After scientists subsequently threatened to pull their work from the Texas publication, the state relented.
In California, legislation allows studying and planning for sea-level rise. In October, a bill from Connecticut lawmakers will take effect that allows for “a rise in sea level,” as defined by NOAA publications, to be considered by state and local planners. Massachusetts requires all state agencies to consider climate change impacts, including sea-level rise. New Hampshire, in 2011, had a couple of bills die in committee that would have required state preparation for rising seas.
Dave Burton, science adviser for the development lobby NC-20, helped provide North Carolina lawmakers with a lower sea level estimate based on historical trends. He is hopeful that North Carolina and Virginia will set an example that other states will follow.
“In the scientific community there is a lot of pushback,” Burton said. “There are a lot of folks who are very aware of the fact that there is a great divide between what the activists are claiming and the data.”
Burton believes overregulation will harm coastal economies. He said North Carolina’s legislation was a pushback against continuing scientific estimates that point to substantial sea level changes. He expects more states to follow suit as more of those estimates are considered.
“I keep meeting people who are scientists and statisticians who are giving us attaboys and really marveling at how far along the discussion on sea level got without the data to back it up,” Burton said.