Sea-level rise debate brings curtain down on legislative session
By Frank Tursi
Coastal Review Online
the newly rewritten Coastal Management Policies Act and its
controversial sea-level rise section was finally debated in the N.C.
House Tuesday, there was little doubt that the issue still causes a
rapid rise in temperatures.
final version of the bill, which passed the House 68-43 on the last day
of the legislative session, drops the mandate in previous versions that
required using only historical data and a linear model to develop a
state standard for anticipated future sea-level rise because of global
the bill puts a four-year moratorium on developing a new model for
sea-level rise and lays out in detail what the N.C. Coastal Resource
Commission must take into account to set a standard. The bill requires,
for instance, that the state set rates in at least four separate
regions of the coast and develop both oceanfront and estuary estimates.
vote culminated a month-long debate in the General Assembly over a
draft policy that was first presented to the commission by its
scientific advisors in 2010. That version recommended that the state
prepare for a sea-level rise of 39 inches by 2100, or more than triple
the historic rate. The forecast immediately came under fire from
development interests and some coastal counties. They questioned the
science behind the report and feared that regulations to protect
against such a drastic rise in sea level would stifle economic growth
on the coast.
nearly hour-long debate on the bill turned into the last substantial
row of the 2011-2012 legislative session as GOP House members angrily
denounced those who ridiculed the bill and tore into the science
panel’s report. The version that passed the Senate was the subject of
hundreds of news reports, editorials and blog posts around the world.
TV satirist Stephen Colbert mocked it on his popular “Colbert Report.”
The House refused to take up that measure, and a conference committee
came up with the compromise that the House approved Tuesday.
Pat McElraft, R-Carteret, who brokered the compromise with the Senate
bill’s backers, said she and her staff paid a price. “I’ve had nasty
phone calls from all over the United States,” she told her colleagues.
“It may seem silly to some of you people, but it’s not silly to those
of us on the coast.”
accused the science panel of using the only the most extreme model of
climate change and ignoring historical data. “Over 30 global scientists
have debunked the science panel’s science,” she said.
was referring to a list of the scientists provided by NC-20, a
nonprofit group made up of some coastal counties and development
interests on the coast that led the opposition to the CRC policy. Few
of the scientists on the list have published research on sea-level rise
or global warming in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
the bill does, McElraft explained, is to ask the CRC to go back and
study the issue, which the commission had already planned to do.
McElraft said the panel needs to take other ideas about global climate
change into account.
we have done is to ask them to use blended models, to use historical
data, to use some real science, some science that we can all trust when
we start making laws here in the state of North Carolina, when we start
affecting property values of our citizens on the coast.”
CRC’s science panel reviewed dozens of peer-reviewed scientific reports
in coming up with its forecast, which was vetted by out-of-state
experts and was in line with forecasts used by major scientific
organizations around the world and by several countries and other
McElraft’s criticism of the report was not the harshest.
we’re calling science is not science,” Rep. Frank Iler, R-Brunswick,
said before launching into a sharp criticism of the 2010 report. “I
think we need a lot more information before we cost people hundreds of
millions of dollars and disrupt everybody’s planning and change our
whole attitude on permitting.”
He accused the “unelected science panel appointed by this unelected commission” of “making rules based on a fantasy basically.”
advisory committee – formerly known as the Science Panel on Coastal
Hazards – by law can’t devise rules. The CRC asked it to produce a
report on future sea-level rise, which didn’t recommend new development
rules. Even before the debate reached Raleigh, the CRC had watered down
the original report through several revisions. The latest two-page
version contains no forecasts for future sea-level rise but
acknowledges that sea-level rise “is occurring and presents a gradual
but significant coastal hazard along the coast of North Carolina.”
Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, is a former CRC member who worked with the
science panel. She defended the scientists, noting some are among the
top coastal experts in the nation. She did thank House negotiators for
helping to eliminate the Senate’s proposal. “That really was
embarrassing to the state,” she said.
said the state needs to pay attention to issue. Given the state’s long,
gently sloping coastline, North Carolina is highly vulnerable to a rise
in sea level, she noted.
think scientists agree we need to prepare for what’s coming and not
stick our heads in the sand,” Harrison said. “We need to consider
sea-level rise when we’re developing policies on coastal management and
I think it’s a terrible idea to put a moratorium on the Coast Resources
Emory, chair of the CRC, said the most unfortunate parts of the debate
over the sea-level rise legislation were the attacks on the science
panel, especially when they got personal.
level of vitriol that’s been part of the discussion has been
unfortunate,” he said. “You can disagree with someone without calling
into question their scientific integrity.”
the bill avoids a veto by Gov. Beverly Perdue, the CRC is “obviously
going to obey the law” in moving forward on its sea-level rise work,
said he is not sure what led to the bill, but suspects that legislators
were concerned that the commission was planning on developing new
“That was one area of confusion,” he said. “The CRC had no intention of adopting a regulatory rate of sea-level rise.”
Davis, director of the state’s Division of Coastal Management, said he
and his staff are starting to plan on how to move ahead under the new
direction laid out in the law, which is in synch with the timeline for
updating the sea-level rise report. He called the language in the bill
“I think we can update the science in the way the bills directs us to,” he said.
complication is the requirement that that a new report include
sea-level rise estimates for at least four regions along the coast.
Davis said it may be more difficult in areas where gauges have not been
in place for very long, but the legislation allows for using data from
other areas as “proxies” in developing estimates.
sea-level rise legislation wasn’t the only change in coastal policy
dictated by the bill. It also includes portions of McElraft’s original
legislation on ocean setbacks that passed the House last year but
wasn’t taken up by the Senate. It grandfathers roughly 200 properties
along the coast from setback requirements that went into effect in 2009.
new rules apply only to structures of 5,000 square feet or greater. In
the event they are destroyed, owners would be allowed to rebuild using
the old standard of 60 feet from the line of vegetation rather than the
new 120-foot standard.
said the division is also looking over the legislation’s requirement
for an updated study of inlet hazard areas and the designation of areas
of environmental concern around Cape Fear.
story 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.)