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
"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."
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
"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
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
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
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."
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