State Politics

May 14, 2014

NC panel starts work on official state sea-level forecast

Following guidelines in a 2012 law that established a moratorium on state regulations based on sea-level rise, the Coastal Resources Commission will ask its advisory science panel to update a controversial forecast.

Two years after coastal real-estate interests and Republican legislative leaders squelched a science panel’s warning that the Atlantic Ocean might climb more than three feet higher on North Carolina shores by 2100, a regulatory commission will start anew Thursday on its assignment to develop the state’s official sea-level forecast.

The Coastal Resources Commission, meeting in Atlantic Beach, will ask its volunteer group of geologists and coastal engineers to update their forecast by next March. Their timetable is dictated by a state law establishing a moratorium until July 2016 on any sea-level prediction that could be used as the basis for new state policies or regulations.

The 2012 law also ordered the commission to launch a parallel study weighing the environmental and economic costs and benefits that would come from any sea-level regulations – or the lack of regulations – in the future. This inquiry could provide an outlet for developers and others who warned of dire economic consequences two years ago, but it is not expected to blunt their drive to dilute the science panel membership and discredit its warning.

Most of the scientists who agreed in 2010 on a 39-inch forecast are still members of the panel, and they are not expected to change their minds.

“Our policy-makers need to understand that any sea-level rise report that’s produced by next year is not going to be dramatically different from the last one, because the science has not changed dramatically,” said panel member Rob Young, a Western Carolina University geologist who heads the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines.

Young and the panel are in sync with a stack of warnings from the world’s leading science boards – and reinforced last week by 250 scientists and government officials who contributed to the 840-page National Climate Assessment – that the planet is warming and the seas are rising.

But many North Carolina political and business leaders hold to a contrarian view shared by some of Gov. Pat McCrory’s 2013 appointees to the Coastal Resources Commission, and by several people who have been nominated to take part in the new science panel forecast. They dispute arguments that human activity is warming the planet, and that the historically slow pace of sea-level rise will soon start to accelerate.

Sea-level hobby

One of these candidates for science-panel service is David Burton, a Cary computer consultant who posts scathing critiques of “climate-change alarmists” on his website,

Burton sits on the board of NC-20, a coastal non-profit that advocates for real estate and economic development interests. He has a master’s degree in computer science and says he has made a “hobby” out of “the study of the science of sea-level rise.”

Burton serves as a leading antagonist of the coastal commission’s science panel. He says he is more qualified than many of its members – university professors and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers professionals – to formulate a new sea-level forecast.

“They’re outside their area of expertise, really, when it comes to that topic,” said Burton, 58. “I think I can bring some expertise and fill a gap and do some good.”

Burton is dismissive of satellite technology measurements of rising sea levels, cited in last week’s National Climate Assessment. While NASA scientists worried this week that a collapsing Antarctic ice sheet could raise sea levels by 4 feet to 12 feet over the next few centuries, he is skeptical.

“There’s this assumption that if it gets warmer, we’re going to melt more ice and the seas are going to go up,” Burton said. “It doesn’t necessarily work that way in the ocean most of the time.”

The new sea-level forecast will be guided by Frank Gorham III, the commission chairman, a McCrory appointee who lives on the coast at Figure Eight Island and makes his living drilling for petroleum in the Southwest.

Gorham praised the science panel and said he hoped to establish a process that would encourage public support for the board’s upcoming work – whatever it concludes.

“I am not agenda-driven,” Gorham said. “I don’t want to agree on the answer and then back into it.”

He will lead discussion at Thursday’s meeting and decide in a few weeks how to fill vacant spots on the science panel and an ad hoc group that will assist in its sea-level forecast.

“I want to pick legitimate, credible people – not agenda people,” Gorham said. “I hope I pick the very best qualified. If some of those happen to have contrarian views, then I hope it’s because they were qualified, not because they were contrarian.”

Supporting science

North Carolina’s 2012 law was lampooned by bloggers and TV comics who joked that legislators were trying to fight sea-level rise by making it illegal. But many state politicians are still skeptical. In a debate leading up to the recent Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat, all four participants scoffed at scientific warnings about climate change.

Gorham said he wants to “let the scientists be scientists” and produce their forecast without having to worry about any economic impacts.

“That’s a policy decision, not a scientific decision,” Gorham said.

He said he would oppose draconian policies that might prevent a coastal property owner from “having his dream,” but he wants North Carolina to be prepared for whatever lies ahead.

“We just need to build into our policy the possibility of what the scientists are recommending,” Gorham said. “That does not mean no development. That means planning for a possibly accelerated sea-level rise.”

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