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Global Warming: The North Carolina Solution

Comedians and late-night talkshow hosts have had a lot of fun with North Carolina’s solution to the rising sea levels caused by global warming. The legislature passed a law to deal with it.

HB 819 : North Carolina lawmakers recently passed HB 819, which included a four-year moratorium on the state Coastal Resources Commission authorizing sea-level forecasts to be used as the basis for regulations while the issue is studied. “North   Carolina should not ignore science when making public policy decisions,” Governor Bev Perdue said. And then she ignored science by refusing to veto HB 819, allowing it to come become law. Any time a law forbids scientific research, you can be sure there is a special interest group behind it.

Special interests: A group called NC-20 claims that floodplains should be determined by historic trends which suggest the seas will only rise 8 inches this century, rather than the scientific data which projects three times that . Republican Rep. Pat McElraft explained,“What we have done is ask them to use a blend of models, to use historical data, to use some real science that we can all trust when we start making laws here in North Carolina”. McElraft, who is a former real estate agent, denied that campaign contributions ever influence her. However, the largest industry contributors to McElraft’s campaigns have been the North Carolina Association of Realtors, followed by the North Carolina Home Builders’ Association. And you can be sure that when politicians say “real science”, it is usually to get around acting on what is actually, real science.

Real Science: Scientists have found that the sea levels have been rising in response to thermal expansion of the ocean and the melting of glaciers. The graph below shows that sea levels have been rising about 3.2 mm per year, which is about 14 inches per century:

Sea Rise


The graph above represents the average rise in sea level over the Earth. However, global warming does not cause the sea levels to rise everywhere at a uniform rate and they are rising much more quickly along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. The U.S. Geological Survey recently released a study that shows the East Coast from Cape Hatteras to Boston has already seen a sea level rise three to four times higher than most of the world in the past 20 years, and will likely continue to do so. The North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s 13-member panel of scientists conducted a nine-month study and warned in 2010 that sea levels in North Carolina could rise by more than 3 feet by 2100 and threaten more than 2,000 square miles of coastal land.

Enter HB 819: There is some very expensive real estate on the Barrier Islands and along the coast of North Carolina that is only a few feet above sea level. Sea level rise threatens the value of that property and makes it more vulnerable to storm surges from hurricanes. Real estate developers might be prohibited from building –  or rebuilding homes damaged by hurricane Sandy and Irene – if low-lying areas were to be designated as a floodplain by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission. As an insurance adjuster in North Carolina explained it, “ NC has dumped the coastal flooded homes on the National Flood Insurance Program for years. They build the homes in a predicted floodplain. Lo, and behold the homes on the coast are flooded. The Feds then have to pick up the tab for NC building homes in known floodplains. They are even today rebuilding homes where they were flooded previously in the exact same spot – in an ocean floodplain.”

It’s a sweet deal, the North Carolina developers and builders profit by building homes in the floodplain, and the federal government picks up the tab when the homes flood. Apparently the legislature is not going to let a little science interfere with that sweet deal.

Note added on 1/15/2015: A recent report in Yale e360 says that the storm destruction/rebuild process is continuing. Along the East after Hurricane Sandy and across the Gulf of Mexico coast in the wake of recent hurricanes, rebuilding has taken place on dozens of vulnerable barrier islands. “This recurring reconstruction places billions of dollars of property at risk  and often means the construction of hugely expensive flood protection and storm-control projects that can harm coastal ecosystems.” The real estate developers profit while the taxpayers are responsible for the risk. In a 2014 report, the National Research Council concluded that barrier islands, as “inherently mobile” and not safe for “human facilities with a fixed position.”

Update on 01/03/2016:  Now, two years after the North Carolina legislature ordered a moratorium on state rules or plans based on changes in sea level, the Coastal Resources Commission still has not started work on the new, official sea-level prediction due in 2016. See : http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article10298660.html

(c) 2013 J.C. Moore



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