Point of View

Sea-level panel’s mainstream report

July 2, 2012 

It has been frustrating to watch the discussion over the issue sea-level rise here in North Carolina. Numerous members of the legislature have indicate that in their view the science panel that advises the Coastal Resources Commission is either ideologically biased or incompetent (that is, including only bad science in its report).

I serve on the science panel that advises the state Coastal Resources Commission. Two years ago, the commission solicited a report from the panel that would summarize the state of the science regarding sea-level rise and recommend the expected increase that planners should consider when looking down the road to 2100.

Our report included a detailed review of the published literature. It was externally peer-reviewed by out-of-state scientists. It contained no alarmist rhetoric or nightmare scenarios. The final recommendation was for the state to plan for 39 inches of sea level rise. This number corresponds well with expert reports produced in other states.

No one has suggested an end to coastal development or an evacuation of the coast. No one is even considering regulations that would slow coastal development. More and more, this just seems to be devolving into an attack on science and scientists.

Many of those quoted in the media would like to believe that our projections are “dogmatic.” Let me assure you that the North Carolina science panel is anything but dogmatic. The members include engineers and a variety of scientists. We have significant representation from former and current employees of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These are not climate alarmists.

We were asked to produce a report on the state of the science. We did. Suggesting that there was political motivation behind the report may serve purpose of argument for those who don’t like our report, but it is completely unfounded.

There have also been many who have alleged that those who research sea-level rise are driven entirely by the desire to secure research funding. Robert Dean, a University of Florida engineer and coastal consultant, was recently quoted by the journal Nature clearly stating exactly that. He suggests that his one paper on sea-level rise is the only one of thousands that was written completely without bias. This is a statement so absurd that one hopes he was misquoted.

Organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of America, the American Geophysical Union and many others have all issued strong position statements supporting the idea that the rate of sea-level rise will be higher in the future than it was in the past. Yet a very, very small percentage of their members conduct funded climate change research. Rather, these diverse groups of scientists have examined the evidence and, based on the facts, found it to be convincing enough to produce scientific statements regarding the need for public action and continued research.

If it is true that these policy statements will lead to an increase in the funding for global change research, then all of the other scientists in these organizations have just “shot themselves in the foot.” There is only so much research money to go around. If it is all going to climate change, then the other scientists in these many organizations are likely to have less funding available for their particular research interest.

A far more likely scenario than a conspiracy to get funding is this: The scientists and engineers in these organizations looked at the peer-reviewed literature and concluded that global change is real, and that an expectation for an acceleration in the rate of sea-level rise is reasonable.

I have grown weary of hearing our legislators suggest that what we need is a new scientific report on sea-level rise with better science in it. I am told that this is the likely outcome of the compromise being worked out between the state House and Senate.

I have a better suggestion. You have a report that was written by the state’s finest scientists and engineers (at no cost to the state, I might add). If the legislature is really interested in finding the best science, than simply send our report, along with any other reports you like (including those from NC-20) to the National Academy of Sciences for review.

This is a cheaper and faster option than commissioning a new report. Let the chips fall where they may.

Rob Young, Ph.D. and a licensed professional geologist, is director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines and professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University.

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