POLITICS

N.C. Senate passes measure to ban planning for accelerated sea-level rise

State senators in North Carolina yesterday approved a measure prohibiting state officials from considering accelerated sea-level rise when creating rules for housing developments and infrastructure projects like bridges.

The legislation instructs planners to use only historical measurements of rising oceans, rejecting scientists' predictions that sea levels could begin climbing more quickly as atmospheric warming expands water and melts ice sheets. It was passed by a voice vote and is headed to the House for possible consideration.

The move reflects a sharp anxiety about climate change among North Carolina politicians, many of whom sided with an economic development group named NC-20 whose chairman rejects the existence of significant impacts from greenhouse gases. The group is leading a campaign against a state benchmark drafted in 2010 recommending that coastal communities plan for a 39-inch rise in sea level by 2100.

NC-20, a name referring to the state's 20 coastal counties, holds that ocean water along North Carolina will rise 8 inches by 2100, a rate that dismisses the effects of global warming.

"There are a number of studies that suggest there isn't any sea-level rise," said Republican state Sen. David Rouzer, the bill's author, noting that Time magazine ran a story about "global cooling" in 1977. "Sometimes the scientists are right; sometimes they're not."

The debate is pitting conservative politicians against scientists, many of whom warn that the legislation can't erase the possibility that higher water levels could exacerbate tidal flooding, erosion, shoreline retreat and the breaching of barrier islands. Those events, they say, could negatively affect the economy -- even as lawmakers make the same argument about aggressive coastal regulations.

"The proposed legislation is not based on sound science and is not in the best interest of North Carolina's residents," S. Jeffress Williams, a coastal scientist and a lead author of the U.S. National Climate Assessment Report, said in an op-ed this week for StarNews Media. He said the bill is based on "distortions and denial."

'I'm not stupid'

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To some, the state's effort to justify increased resiliency of homes and infrastructure through warnings about rising sea levels, which are climbing globally at about 3 millimeters a year, marks an overstep that could make land unbuildable, thus depriving communities of tax revenue.

"I'm not a scientist, but I'm not stupid," said Republican state Rep. Bill Cook, who supports the bill in the House and described the state's panel of scientists who developed the policy as "pseudo-scientists."

"We need to have reasonable policies," he added. "Think about that, that study that showed 39 inches of sea-level rise. Good God, that would have cost this state a fortune for some made-up numbers, as far as I can tell."

The state's report in 2010 was developed by the Coastal Resources Commission's science panel, consisting of geologists, engineers and other experts. It examined existing scientific literature and local data from tide gauges. The group of 13 experts unanimously agreed that seas could rise by between 15 and 55 inches by 2100. Then it settled on 39 inches as a planning benchmark.

The bill passed yesterday rejects leading scientific estimates that sea rise globally could reach 1 meter or more over the next 90 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected in 2007 that oceans could rise by about 9 inches over that period, but that was related only to the thermal expansion of oceans.

Environmental groups focus on House

An accelerated rate could take place if the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica undergo rapid melting from warmer air and water temperatures.

"At the end of the last ice age, the Earth slowly warmed by 4-7 [degrees Celsius] globally and lost almost two-thirds of its land ice in the process," Stefan Rahmstorf, a German climatologist, wrote in a Nature Reports Climate Change article in 2010.

"That raised sea level by 120 metres, at rates often exceeding a metre per century," he added. "It seems that nothing in the present ice-sheet configuration would rule out similar rates in [the] future."

The legislation will now move to the North Carolina House of Representatives, where it must be passed before the Legislature adjourns later this month. If it stalls in the House, or is defeated, the bill's authors would need to begin afresh in the next session.

Environmental groups are trying to convince House lawmakers that the bill is a futile attempt to wish away threats identified by scientists. They're hoping the controversy dogging the bill, including comedian Stephen Colbert's derisive comments about attempts to outlaw sea-level rise, will make the bill unpalatable.

"It's just an absurd piece of legislation," said Elizabeth Ouzts, state director of Environment North Carolina. "The idea that we would try and prescribe science through legislation is certainly wrongheaded."

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