As North Carolina recovers from from Hurricane Florence — a rare Category 4 storm — it is worth noting that several years ago, the state decided to simply ignore unsettling scientific predictions about the effects of climate change on its shoreline.
In 2012, the state now in the path of Hurricane Florence reacted to a prediction by its Coastal Resources Commission that sea levels could rise by 39in over the next century by passing a law that banned policies based on such forecasts.
The legislation drew ridicule, including a mocking segment by comedian Stephen Colbert, who said: “If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”
North Carolina’s long, low-lying coastline makes it one of the nation’s most vulnerable areas to rising seas; however, coastal developers and sympathetic politicians feared the predictions for such rises in sea levels were exaggerated and would only hurt property values.
As a result, the state’s official policy, rather than adapting to the worst potential effects of climate change, has been to assume it simply won’t be that bad. Instead of forecasts, it has mandated predictions based on historical data on sea level rise.
“The science panel used one model, the most extreme in the world,” Pat McElraft, the sponsor of the 2012 bill, said at the time, according to Reuters. “They need to use some science that we can all trust when we start making laws in North Carolina that affect property values on the coast.”
The law — which went into effect after then-Governor Bev Perdue (D) neither signed nor vetoed the bill — required the coastal resources commission to submit another report in 2015.
That report looked only 30 years ahead, rather than a century. It found that the rise in sea level during that time was likely to be roughly 6in to 8in, with higher increases possible in parts of the Outer Banks.
Some outside studies have offered more dire warnings. A report last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists said 13 North Carolina communities were likely to be “chronically inundated” with seawater by 2035.
Current Democratic Governor Roy Cooper has shifted the state’s policy toward climate change: Cooper said North Carolina would join the U.S. Climate Alliance, which consists of states that have pledged to honor the goals of the Paris climate accord, despite President Donald Trump’s withdrawal.
But Orrin Pilkey, a retired Duke University coastal geologist, wrote in a recent op-ed in the News & Observer that the state has still failed to take the steps that communities in Virginia and New Jersey have taken, to prepare for rising sea levels.
“Instead coastal development flourishes as more beachfront buildings, highways and bridges are built to ease access to our beautiful beaches,” he wrote. “Currently the unspoken plan is to wait until the situation is catastrophic and then respond.”