Sea-level rise debate may move to Raleigh
By KIRK ROSS
Coastal Review Online
bill that could be introduced when the N.C. General Assembly convenes
Wednesday, May 16, would prevent state agencies and local governments
from planning for the higher seas that many scientists expect later
this century as the climate warms.
Instead, the bill requires that any state forecast for future sea-level
rise be based on the historical rise of the last century, and it
prohibits state agencies and institutions and local governments from
developing their own forecasts based on a different standard.
The Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee was
scheduled to hear the bill Wednesday, but that meeting has been
The proposed bill is a substitute for House Bill 819. That bill,
sponsored by Rep. Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, dealt only with oceanfront
setback requirements for existing structures. It passed the House last
year but wasn’t taken up the Senate. Under legislative rules, the bill
can be considered in the so-called short session.
The substitute bill, though, adds language that describes tight rules
on how the state develops a sea-level rise rate, a contentious issue
that the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission has struggled with for more
than two years.
The great majority of climate scientists expect the world’s oceans to
rise at an accelerated rate this century as the climate warms. Ocean
water expands as it heats ups, called thermal expansion, and melting
glaciers will add their volume of water to the oceans. How quickly and
how much the seas rise would depend on how warm the climate gets and
how fast the glaciers melt.
After reviewing the scientific literature, the commission’s science
panel recommended in a draft policy in 2010 that the state prepare for
a sea-level rise of up to 55 inches by 2100, with a 39-inch rise being
likely. The recommendation has drawn fire from NC-20, which represents
development interests and some coastal counties. It has questioned the
science used by the panel and worries that development restrictions to
implement the policy would hinder economic growth in coastal counties.
proposed bill would limit forecasts for future sea-level rise to what
the ocean along the N.C. coast did last century. Using that standard,
the state would plan for rise of about 12 inches by 2100.
Determining the rate would fall to the N.C. Division of Coastal
Management. Language in the bill says the rates “shall be limited to
the time period following the year 1900” and that "(R)ates of sea-level
rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but
shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.”
Jeffrey Warren declined to comment on the bill or what spurred it,
saying it was policy not to comment on legislation that has not been
introduced or made public. He is a senior policy advisor on science
matters to Sen. Phil Berger, the Senate president pro tem, and a
geology professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke
Rob Young, a geology professor at Western Carolina University and a
member of the commission’s science panel, called the language on
sea-level rise in the bill “bad science.”
“I think the Senate is within its rights to develop a sea-level rise
policy,” he said. “What I don't like about the bill is the science.”
Young said if the bill becomes law, the legislature would be choosing a
path that runs counter to the findings of the National Academy of
Sciences and “every major science organization on the globe.”
It would also make North Carolina the only state to adopt the
historical standard and ignore evidence of a more rapid rise. “Every
other state in the country is planning on three-feet of sea level rise
or more,” he said.
Delaware, for instance, is adopting a plan for sea-level rise of up to
60 inches by the end of the century. Southeast Florida is projecting a
9- to 24-inch rise by 2060, and the California State Lands Commission
is preparing for a 55-inch rise by 2100.
Other states haven't seen development grind to a halt because of their
plans, he said, and they've allowed planners to develop responses to an
accelerated sea level.
“This bill requires the state of North Carolina to live in total
ignorance of that,” Young said. "It basically prevents DCM (Division of
Coastal Management) from even considering that sea level rise in the
future might be different than it is today."
Michele Walker, spokesperson for the division, said the agency is
reviewing the legislation but has not taken a stand on it. Walker said
division officials have asked for some “technical clarifications” on
the methodology, specifically on monitoring the rise in estuaries.
Walker said the Coastal Resources Commission, which must ask the
division to develop the official state sea-level rise rate, according
to the proposed bill, is still reviewing the draft policy and has been
“leaning toward historical rise” as the standard.
Bob Emory, the commission’s chairman, said he has not seen the new
legislation and declined to comment on it until he and other commission
members have had a chance to review it.
The state's League of Municipalities is also taking a hard look at the
bill because it states that only the state’s coastal counties may adopt
rules, ordinances, policies and planning guidelines related to
sea-level rise and that they must use state’s authorized rates.
Erin Wynia, a policy analyst, said the league is trying to gather
feedback from its members on the proposed bill. She said the main
concern is how much it might impact local planning. "What cities and
towns do not want to see in the bill are restrictions on policies at
the local level. This bill does appear to do that," she said.
Scott Shuford, a former planning director for Onslow County and the
author of a climate handbook for planners published by the American
Planning Association, agreed that the bill will make the state unique
since most governments worldwide are heading in a different policy
“It's very difficult to legislate nature," he said.
The effect of the bill might not be felt at first, Shuford said. The
science panel's research, he said, doesn't show much of a deviation
between the historical and accelerated rates of rise for about 25
“That’s the timeframe for most long-range planning," he said. "But when
you're talking about public infrastructure that lasts 25 to 50 years,
it's more problematic.”
It's also more of a problem with larger projects, he added.
“If you're building a sidewalk, it may not make a big difference if the
legislature says sea-level rise is 'X' and the scientists say it's
'Y,’” Shuford said. “But if you're building a bridge or picking a site
for an airport or a sewage treatment plant, it's not a good idea to
rely on legislative decisions."
is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news and
features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)