Is sea level rise dead?

Published 7:24 pm Saturday, February 18, 2012

NC-20 launches successful lobbying effort, resulting in changes to draft sea level rise policy

Lobbying by a coalition of 20 eastern North Carolina counties led to “significant changes” in a draft sea level rise policy considered by the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, the commission’s chairman acknowledged.
As originally proposed, the policy could have removed 1.3 million acres of land from future use, possibly costing local governments, developers and taxpayers billions of dollars, argued leaders of NC-20, the regional coalition.
“We made some significant changes to the original draft and pretty much eliminated the parts of it that were bothering people,” CRC Chairman Bob Emory told the Daily News in a recent interview.
Emory confirmed he’d had “several conversations” with NC-20 leaders about CRC science panel projections of ocean encroachment.
Emory called those conversations “helpful.”
“I think we made enough changes to (the draft policy) to satisfy most of the concerns I heard from NC-20,” he said.
The CRC deferred action on the draft policy until after it could respond to NC-20’s concerns, Emory said.
When the commission finally calls for a public hearing on a sea level rise policy, “I don’t think there’s going to be anything in there that’s going to scare people,” he concluded.
Tom Thompson is chairman of NC-20 and Beaufort County’s economic developer.
Members of NC-20 include Hyde and Beaufort counties.
Thompson, with other members of the nonprofit, regional partnership he represents, argued the science panel’s definition of the problem of sea level rise was exaggerated and part of an attempt to mandate coastal policy from the science panel.
“We killed sea level rise inflation,” Thompson commented.
The CRC “establishes policies for the N.C. Coastal Management Program and adopts implementing rules for both (the Coastal Area Management Act) and the N.C. Dredge and Fill Act,” reads a post on the commission’s website. “The commission designates areas of environmental concern, adopts rules and policies for coastal development within those areas, and certifies local land-use plans.”
The commission’s 15 members are appointed by the governor, the website notes.
The CRC’s science panel is comprised of “the state’s best experts on coastal hazards,” including engineers and senior faculty members at state universities, according to Emory.
Adjustments to CRC’s draft sea level rise policy in response to NC-20 differ markedly from what was originally proposed based on initial science-panel recommendations, sources told the Daily News.
The early draft would have required that coastal counties adopt land-use plans accounting for an anticipated ocean rise of 39 inches by 2100, Thompson said.
Now, CRC has shifted toward letting counties decide how to prepare for ocean incursion, he asserted.
“There was a strong movement on the Coastal Resources Commission and the science panel to promote a very aggressive sea level rise policy,” Thompson said.
Members of the science panel contend sea levels will rise at an alarming rate because of global warming and the resultant melting of polar ice caps, Thompson related.
A sea rise of the magnitude forecast by some scientists could place many coastal communities under water, he said.
“Physically, 39 inches would be added to the highest flooding you’ve ever seen” in the counties comprising NC-20, Thompson added.
Thompson and his colleagues have enlisted scientists who dispute the direst projections, partly in response to fear predictions of extreme sea elevation could scare away prospective industries.
“Every industrial prospect I get asks to see flood maps,” Thompson pointed out. “They don’t even assume you’re in the flood zone. They want proof you’re not in the flood zone.”
Thompson said scientists and area officials have put their hands on evidence that global temperature fluctuations are normal and cyclical, and not caused by man’s release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Thompson pointed specifically to the work of Robert Dean, graduate research professor emeritus at the University of Florida.
Basically, Dean concluded there have been decelerations in sea level rise, citing worldwide tide gauge data, according to Thompson and research published online.
Armed with this and other information, NC-20 launched its offensive against the state’s draft policy.
“It all started with the Power Point given by Rudy Rudolph, Director of the Carteret County Shore Protection Office, at the NC-20 meeting in New Bern,” reads a memo on NC-20’s website. “Legislative officials and county commissioners from around the region got a real education into the ‘flawed science’ behind the CRC’s draft proposal. … There were a number of policy problems including the requirement to raise the elevations of all public and private developments to accommodate that 39 inch rise over the next 100 years. Additionally, it ignored the effect the document might have on insurance companies looking at insuring coastal properties in the future. The effect such a requirement might have on bank lending for real estate in the region was another question mark.”
N.C. State University professor Margery Overton chairs the CRC’s science panel. Contacted by phone, Overton declined immediate comment on the sea level rise debate. She didn’t respond to emailed questions.
Todd Miller is executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a nonprofit organization emphasizing the need to protect and restore the Old North State’s coastal land.
Miller conceded the first CRC projections “would be very dramatic.”
At the same time, “I don’t think anybody, even in NC-20, disputes the fact that sea level is rising,” he said. “The debate has been about how much it could escalate in the future.”
Physically, North Carolina is “located on basically ground zero in terms of sea level rise on the East Coast,” Miller said. “As a coastal region, we’re very vulnerable to sea level rise.”
Residents already are “seeing the difficulties of maintaining the (N.C. Highway 12) link on the Outer Banks,” and witnessing incursion issues in low-lying places like Hyde County, he continued.
“Those are all real issues that we’re grappling with currently,” Miller said. “The coast is constantly in a state of transition. I think we’ve come to terms with trying to deal with the documented rises in seal level to some extent. If it escalates then that greatly magnifies the challenges that everybody’s going to be facing.”
“Rising water levels are already an important factor in submerging low-lying lands, eroding beaches, converting wetlands to open water, and exacerbating coastal flooding,” reads a post on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website. “All of these effects will be increased if the rate of sea-level rise accelerates in the future.”
According to a report on EPA’s website, “Consensus in the climate science community is that the global climate is changing, mostly due to mankind’s increased emissions of greenhouses gases (25 percent increase in the last century), such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, from burning of fossil fuels and land-use change. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, but the effects of climate change are highly variable across regions and difficult to predict with confidence based on limited observations over time and space.”
The report points out almost half of the world’s 6.7 billion people live near coasts “and are highly vulnerable to storms and sea-level rise.”