Did legislators do their (sea) level best?

The General Assembly pulled back from the brink, barely, with revisions to the bill on sea-level rise.

July 14, 2012 

There’s nothing like becoming a late-night joke to pull politicians back from the brink. That’s basically what happened, shortly before our legislature folded its tent, in the celebrated case of the General Assembly versus sea-level rise. The House and Senate retreated just enough to avoid going over the edge – the flat-earth edge.

By then, the Republican-run legislature had been fully, and fairly, hung out to dry by comics and commentators for seeming to stand on the beach and decree 8 inches of sea-level rise, tops, by the end of the century in North Carolina. So what if a state-appointed science panel had found it would be safer to think in terms of 39 inches?

King Canute, when he issued his legendary order that the tide not rise, was making the point that nature answers to no man’s command, not even a monarch’s. Our legislature’s command was aimed at planners and regulators. Thou shall not, it said in the Senate’s version of a bill, rely on any sea-level assumptions that might have a seriously limiting effect on future development along North Carolina’s coast or areas just inland. “Historical data” – the basis for the forecast of a modest 8-inch-rise – must govern estimates of future sea levels. Scenarios that forecast an increasing rate of rise need not apply.

As finally passed, the bill punts the detailed estimates down the road. It tells the science panel to come back later with an updated report that addresses “the full range of global, regional, and North Carolina specific sea-level change data and hypotheses, including sea-level fall, no movement in sea level, deceleration of sea-level rise, and acceleration of sea-level rise.” Meantime, the bill enjoins state agencies (although not cities and counties) from considering accelerated sea-level rise in decision-making until July 2016.

So the 8-inch projection is out, but the 39-incher is too. Coastal development, presumably, goes on apace.

If it weren’t for the insult to science, the outcome wouldn’t be so awful. As a policy matter, it makes sense to be cautious in restricting development based on projections of sea-level rise. This is, after all, an estimate involving a human lifetime, and it would be extreme to say that development in 2012 has to conform to a 2100-edition coast. Come heck or high water, there’ll be time to adjust.

The mistake the coastal real estate and development interests made was not in urging caution on that score, but in taking up with dubious climate-change deniers and others who stand well outside the scientific mainstream. That was unnecessary and unwise. Ultimately, it’s why the legislature was ridiculed.

Rob Young of Western Carolina University, writing recently on these pages, pointed out that the peer-reviewed study by the science panel, on which he served, was by no means alarmist. “More and more,” he concluded, “this just seems to be devolving into an attack on science and scientists.”

The legislature badly needs to reverse that impression. As things stand, its actions do not measure up.

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