Point of View

Making sense of sea-level rise

June 14, 2012 

North Carolina has made itself the target of mockery by scientists, environmental activists and even a satirical feature by comedian Stephen Colbert. A local political lobbying effort in Eastern North Carolina to discredit mainstream climate science has now become the basis of legislation making its way through the state legislature to codify specific (and very low) predictions about sea level rise as a basis for state and regional policy affecting the coast.

This legislation says that North Carolina’s Coastal Resources Commission can base its policies only on a predicted sea level rise that is the same as what has been seen in the last hundred years or so of observations from tide-gauge records. This runs directly against a vast body of scientific research (ably summarized by Duke University geologist Orrin Pilkey in a June 8 Point of View article) and essentially says that legislation can somehow force the future to be exactly like the past.

The idea that legislating scientific findings can prevent a rising sea level from threatening coastal communities is both silly and dangerous, but the concerns of the interests that have pushed this legislation are legitimate.

Many scientists and activists believe that government policy should immediately and strongly discourage continued human habitation on the coast. This belief enters the policy realm in the form of calls for restrictions on construction and new infrastructure in coastal locations, as well as reductions in spending on the maintenance and building of roads and bridges in coastal areas.

The belief that high levels of sea level rise should cause widespread adoption of no-growth policies on the coast is shortsighted for two reasons. First, it ignores the role that people and communities play in making their own decisions about how to adapt to changes in climate-driven hazards. Real estate markets will reflect the dangers from rising seas, and individual property owners and businesses will make decisions about defensive actions, construction standards and relocation based on their own assessments of risk and the price signals in markets.

Second, many policy prescriptions do not deal with time, and timing, in a sensible and efficient manner. Even with sea level rise and storm regimes that are worse than expected, there are still many years for people to live, work and visit productively in coastal locations with acceptable levels of risk. Short-term abandonment or roadblocks to new investments can impose large losses on businesses and communities in the short- and medium-run based on conditions that are most likely still many years in the future.

The interests that have been behind a legislative definition of sea level rise are concerned about local self-determination and the value of their existing businesses and assets. They view the science and the resulting policy prescriptions as one and the same, and have chosen a political attack on science as the best strategy for protecting their autonomy and financial interests.

The real issue here is how individuals and communities adapt to climate change – what combination of top-down planning, market forces and individual decisions guide outcomes on the coast. There are strong reasons why government needs to take account of the best available science in its decision-making – avoiding subsidies to maladaptive behavior, minimizing public spending on disaster relief and guiding public investment all require the best available knowledge about future risks. Good information based on sound science also gives the widest possible scope for individuals and local communities to make their own best decisions.

Finding the right balance between public and private decision-making on coastal investment and land use will be difficult. It will require experimentation and learning. It will also take place over an extended period of time, and will change as more is learned about climate change and ways that human actions can avoid the worst consequences of increased risks at the coast.

Neither public policy nor private decisions will be helped by denying reality. The issue in North Carolina is public policy, not science, and competing interests should battle directly in that arena. The groups behind this attack on science have good reason to advocate for balanced policies, but their attempts to override the scientific process through legislation will not help anyone as coastal communities figure out how to adapt to a changing and highly uncertain climate.

North Carolina should not need Stephen Colbert to remind us of that truth.

Andy Keeler is program head of public policy and coastal sustainability at the UNC Coastal Studies Institute in Manteo and professor of economics at East Carolina University.

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