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NY Times, Sept. 13, 2018
North Carolina, Warned of Rising Seas, Chose to Favor Development
By John Schwartz and Richard Fausset
As Hurricane Florence bears down on North Carolina, the state may face
the consequences of policies minimizing the impact of climate change and
allowing extensive development in vulnerable coastal areas.
The approaching storm almost certainly gained destructive power from a
warming climate, but a 2012 law, and subsequent actions by the state,
effectively ordered state and local agencies that develop coastal
policies to ignore scientific models showing an acceleration in the rise
of sea levels.
In the years since, development has continued with little regard to the
long-term threat posed by rising sea levels. And the coastal region’s
population and economy have boomed, growing by almost half in the last
The law, known as H.B. 819, was widely criticized and even ridiculed
when it passed, but it was favored by the state’s business interests,
which argued that it was needed to protect property values. Business
leaders had been jolted by a state commission’s 2010 report saying that
sea levels could rise as much as 39 inches by the year 2100, which would
devastate the coast and swamp billions of dollars’ worth of real estate.
Stanley Riggs, a retired research professor at East Carolina University
who helped prepare the 2010 report, said that the research could have
been used to tackle the difficult problems of development on the state’s
“We were ready to step up to the plate and take a hard look at this
long-term problem,” he said. “And we blew it.”
Supporters of the bill, including David Rouzer, a member of the General
Assembly at the time, incorrectly argued that the science of climate
change and sea level rise could not be validated and their use in
forming policy could have “a negative impact on coastal economies.”
A pro-business group, NC-20, which lobbied for the measure, said its
goal was to “demand responsible science concerning sea level rise,” but
based part of its argument on inaccurate claims that “despite 80 years
of man-made carbon dioxide increase, there is no acceleration in sea
Opponents, like Deborah K. Ross, a former member of the state
legislature, said that turning a blind eye to the science of climate
change was self-destructive.
“In order to protect our people, our property and our environment, we
need the most information that we can have, in order to mitigate risk,”
she said. “When we ignore facts, we do it at our peril.”
As Hurricane Florence bore down on Wednesday, residents and business
owners boarded up homes and businesses up and down the North and South
Carolina coasts. Tens of thousands of people headed inland after state
and local officials ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying coastal
counties, where the National Hurricane Center has predicted a
“life-threatening storm surge.”
“We’ve said time and again, we know a lot of our coastal residents have
ridden out storms before,” Gov. Roy Cooper said. “This should not be one
of those storms. Don’t risk your life riding out a monster.”
Storm-force winds are expected along the shore beginning on Thursday,
and the storm is expected to crawl inland after that, drenching a wide
area with extremely heavy rains. Both the volume and the geographic
extent of those rains are likely to be 50 percent greater than if there
had been no climate change, according to a team of climate scientists
led by researchers at Stony Brook University.
The North Carolina state legislature pushed back against the 2010 sea
level warnings even though researchers and universities in the state
have been at the forefront of the scientific work that produced them.
Early versions of the 2012 bill even dictated how officials were allowed
to forecast sea levels: Only historical data could be used, and not any
computer models that showed that the rate of rise would be faster in the
future than in the past — an approach that would seriously underestimate
the effects of climate change.
The final bill was softened a bit, but another factor helped shift
policymaking in the same direction: The election of Pat McCrory as
governor in 2012 meant that the Republican Party, which already
dominated the legislature, now had total control of the state
government, including the coastal resources commission, which was soon
reshaped to be more friendly to business.
Before the Republicans gained the upper hand, North Carolina was “a
leader in really thoughtful coastal management,” said Geoffrey R.
Gisler, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
But the commission’s 2010 report about sea level threw a scare into real
estate developers, as well as some coastal residents, who worried that
the state would respond with new policies that would crimp their profits
or their way of life.
“A lot of folks who have interests in developing areas that are
currently vulnerable, and would become more vulnerable with sea level
rise, objected to the public finding out that there was this projected
significant sea-level rise,” Mr. Gisler said. “And so the legislature
decided to prohibit looking that far out.”
Mr. Gisler said that while its direct effects were limited, the 2012 law
went hand in hand with a broader weakening in the state of environmental
regulations that developers had opposed.
Under the new governor, the revamped coastal commission produced a
report in 2015 that looked forward 30 years — a “shorter, more credible
time period,” according to its chairman, Frank Gorham — and foresaw only
six to eight inches of sea-level rise. “Everyone looked at the 2100 time
period, and the people that hated it dismissed it completely, and we
just lost credibility,” he said of the earlier report.
Robert S. Young, a coastal geology professor at Western Carolina
University who had worked on the original report, responded in a
newspaper column that “local officials may breathe easier having to look
only 30 years down the road, but six to eight inches of sea-level rise
are no reason to celebrate.”
North Carolina was not alone in turning away from the direr warnings of
climate science. The administration of Gov. Rick Scott of Florida
discouraged the use of terms like “climate change” and “global warming”
in official communications.
A law enacted in North Carolina in 2012 effectively ordered state and
local agencies to exclude climate change from scientific models used to
develop coastal policies.CreditEric Thayer for The New York Times
President Trump has called climate change a “hoax,” and some federal
agencies have played down terms like “climate change” in their reports,
publications and websites. But the Trump administration’s actions go
beyond just words: it is attempting to roll back dozens of environmental
and climate regulations.
Michael Mann, a climate change expert at Pennsylvania State University
whose work has shown the links between greenhouse gas emissions and
sharply rising temperatures, said that the administration’s policies,
including a recently revealed effort to relax Obama-era restrictions on
energy companies’ release of methane into the atmosphere, will
accelerate climate change.
Mr. Mann said it was ironic that Hurricane Florence, “fueled in part by
bathwater-hot Atlantic Ocean temperatures warmed by human carbon
emissions,” came as “the Trump administration engages in another assault
on policies aimed at curbing carbon emissions.”
Bob Emory, who was chairman of the coastal commission when the dire 2010
report was released, was at home in New Bern, N.C., on Tuesday,
wondering whether he should pack up and evacuate inland to escape Florence.
He said in a telephone interview that he stood by the report but felt
that its purpose had been misunderstood. The commission, he said, had
failed “to provide sufficient assurance to local governments and to
anybody else that our intention with that report was to provide
information — it wasn’t to regulate anybody.”
The election of another new governor in 2016 — Roy Cooper, a
pro-environment Democrat — has begun to reverse the shift in the state’s
tenor on environmental issues. For one thing, Governor Cooper
reappointed Mr. Emory to the coastal commission over the summer.
Even so, the legislature remains in Republican hands. Robin Smith, a new
appointee to the commission who served for years as an environmental
lawyer for the state, said that, “based on the legislature’s approach to
other environmental issues in the interim, I suspect there’s a high
degree of suspicion, bordering on hostility, still, to new regulation
based on sea level rise.”
Instead, she said, she expects the commission to concentrate on
supplying information and working with county and local governments.
Ms. Smith said her first meeting with the commission, scheduled for next
week, had been canceled because of the storm.
While North Carolina has come under criticism for the law, the state has
also been home to some of the nation’s most advanced coastal science.
The leading scientific model used to forecast storm surge and its effect
on coastal areas, known as Adcirc, was created in large part by Rick
Luettich, director of the institute of marine sciences at the University
of North Carolina.
In a telephone interview during a break from boarding up the windows of
his home in Morehead City, on the coast, Mr. Luettich noted that before
2012, the state pursued progressive policies that put it in the
forefront of coastal management. When the legislature pushed back
against the clear scientific evidence underlying climate change, he
said, “it came as a shock.”
There is a lesson in that, he said.
“The process of converting scientific research into policy is one that
we take for granted at times,” Mr. Luettich said. “What we learned is
that you can’t take that for granted. We need to have a closer dialogue
with policymakers, to make sure we’re on the same page.”
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