Lawmakers release revised legislation on sea-level science

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comJune 7, 2012 

Bloggers and TV comics have ridiculed it, and now state legislators will get their first chance Thursday to debate unusual legislation that would put tight restrictions on how state and local agencies plan for rising sea levels. [Updated 6/7/12 with revised legislation, below.]

The Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee will air the proposal, which was drafted by Republicans in response to controversy over a state-appointed science panel’s warning that a rise of one meter (39 inches) is likely by the end of this century. Coastal economic development interests protested that the figure was much too high, and they persuaded the state Coastal Resources Commission to reject the panel’s findings.

[Update 7 a.m. 6/7/12: The revised legislation text was released this morning and is attached below, with broader guidelines and without some of the narrow restrictions that had been circulated a few weeks ago.

Scientists, developers, environmentalists, property owners and other interested parties: I'm reporting on this today. Please read this legislation and let me know what you think about it. Remember to include your name and contact info.

It makes the Coastal Resources Commission the sole agency "authorized to define rates of sea-level rise for regulatory purposes" and says:

"These rates shall be determined using statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data generated using generally accepted scientific and statistical techniques. Historic rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historical trends. Rates of sea-level rise shall not be one rate for the entire coast but, rather, the Commission shall consider separately oceanfront and estuarine shorelines. ...

Any agency or institution that develops a sea-level rise policy "shall use only the definitions and rates of sea-level rise" approved by the Coastal Resources Commission. Other state and local agencies and institutions including UNC campuses are free to study sea-level rise and disseminate research "for non-regulatory purposes."

Sen. David Rouzer, a Benson Republican who co-chairs the environment committee, said he would be rewriting parts of the measure before it receives its first public discussion in Thursday’s meeting. “There’s clearly inconsistent opinion among the scientific community,” Rouzer said Wednesday. “We think there should be some rationale for a forecast. This just simply puts some guardrails in place to insure that whatever the forecast is is consistent with historical data.”

Asked whether he was sure he had chosen the best rationale for governing scientific forecasts, Rouzer replied, “Why is it the right rationale to assume you’re going to have a meter increase in sea level 90 years from now? How is that rational?”

Rouzer became the first legislator Wednesday to speak up for the idea that laws are needed to limit sea-level science in the state. The notion has been derided on the Scientific American magazine website by Raleigh blogger Scott Huler, and on cable TV by comic Stephen Colbert.

Coastal geologist Stan Riggs of Eastern Carolina University, who served on the panel that made the one-meter forecast, called the legislation a “terrible” effort to suppress science and public education.

“We’re going back to the Dark Ages,” Riggs said. “You don’t throw out what we know about (shoreline) dynamics and processes. The science is very well known.

“It’s like Galileo when he announced that Earth was not the center of the universe. The religious and political leaders said, ‘You’re wrong. It’s heretical.’” Riggs blamed rising sea levels for the unexpectedly heavy damage caused last summer by Hurricane Irene, considered a minor storm.

“We’ve got as many as 300 houses that are out there in the surf zone now, not because they were built in the surf zone but because sea levels are rising and shorelines are retreating. We have 25 miles of Highway 12 (on the Outer Banks) that DOT can’t even hold onto any more. This is happening very fast.”

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