An issue warming up: State, local planners must consider climate change

Published 3:44 am Friday, January 19, 2007

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in The Charlotte Observer.)
If one trend came though loud and clear last week at a meeting of the Legislative Commission on Global Climate Change, it was this: Average sea level is rising and changes to the landscape are on their way.
This is not a matter of conjecture. It’s a matter of math. In the past century, seas rose about 8 inches. In the next century, they may rise 16 inches or more. As water levels rise, land will continue to drown. The effects of storms will be worse and homes and roads that once were unaffected by water levels will be endangered. Some of them will be destroyed.
Dr. Courtney Hackney, who chairs the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, described how rising seas will consume more and more houses that were built in the coastal real estate boom of the 1980s: ‘‘There are an awful lot of houses that will be sliding into the ocean, or a lot of money will be spent on beach renourishment.’’
And because of extensive ditching and canals that were built over several centuries, saltwater intrusion will contaminate farmland and waterwells. It will also affect plant and animal life, changing the nature of habitat and painting a different picture of the coastal zone we now know.
These changes are occurring at a time when some scientists and some policymakers are arguing about the cause, particularly whether it’s due to human activities or part of some natural cycle. But it doesn’t require a unanimous consensus to realize that changes are occurring and that it would be foolish beyond comprehension to continue business as usual.
For example, with rising sea levels and the prospect of frequent hurricanes and other named storms, does it make sense to continue rebuilding coastal roads adjacent to the ocean, or to allow rebuilding of homes and businesses damaged by storms and coastal erosion? Should taxpayers be asked to pay for replacing bridges or other public infrastructure in high-hazard zones that scientists say are vulnerable? Should the state continue to fight nature by closing new inlets created by storms?
Wouldn’t it be wiser to require that decisions over building or rebuilding in harm’s way also calculate the likelihood of severe weather and the vulnerability to storms, saltwater intrusion and inundation of the land? And require that policymakers incorporate those findings into their deliberations before making final decisions?
The climate change commission will make some recommendations to the 2007 General Assembly and a final set next year. It is pondering what the state might do to stave off the ill effects of global warming as well as how North Carolina might take advantage of any economic opportunities posed by climate change. It should recognize the opportunity to make better choices at both the state and local levels about growth in the state’s threatened coastal zone.