In less than 20 years, 13 communities on North Carolina’s coast will see regular flooding each year because of rising sea levels, according to a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. A discussion of climate change, its current and future effects on North Carolina and some possible solutions brought several hundred people to downtown Raleigh Thursday night.
The Community Voices forum, “Rising Seas: How will climate change affect the NC Coast?,” was sponsored by The News & Observer and WTVD.
“For many years in increasing numbers North Carolinians have gone to the coast. Now, inch by inch, the coast is coming to us,” Ned Barnett said introducing the panel at the N.C. Museum of History. “In North Carolina sea level rise is especially worrisome because the flatness of the coastal plane magnifies any rise.”
Five scientists participated on the panel:
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▪ Orrin Pilkey, professor emeritus at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment;
▪ Astrid Caldas, a senior climate scientist in the Climate and Energy Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (or, as Caldas joked they’ve been called since November, the Union of “pissed off scientists”);
▪ Stanley R. Riggs, professor of Geology at East Carolina University;
▪ Greg Rudolph, a geologist who served on the state’s Coastal Resource Commission’s Science Panel;
▪ Todd Miller, founder and executive director of the North Carolina Coastal Federation and a Carteret County native.
“Our panel does not include climate change deniers, or those who dismiss sea level rise,” Barnett said. “Perhaps they are right. If so, in one hundred years we will apologize for not inviting them,” he said to much laughter. “But to us this is too urgent, and so scientifically settled that we cannot devote the little time we have here tonight to a debate about whether or not there is even a problem to discuss.”
Currently, panelists said, North Carolina’s sea level is rising, and the amount it rises will increase.
By mid-late century sea level would rise, “two feet to 10 feet,” Pilkey said. “If there is a scientific consensus it would be three feet.” While this does not sound like a lot, for every one foot of sea level rise “in theory could be two thousand feet of shoreline retreat.”
Caldas warned of a “near-term’ threat and said that research she had done in 2014 projected that Wilmington “will go from a few tidal floods currently, to as many as 150 tidal flooding events by 2035, and upwards of 350 by 2045.”
Caldas also said that people should not assume they won’t be affected by sea leavel rise just because their homes may not be at risk of flooding. The flooding of roads and other infrastructure could leave people unable to go to work or trapped within small areas.
The effects of sea-level rise would be compounded by more hurricanes. “We’ve got many more Floyds and Sandys, Marias and Harveys coming at us,” Riggs said. “We lucked out this year.”
In order to combat rising sea levels, Pilkey said, “we can either build a sea wall or push buildings back or demolish buildings.” If there was a sea wall there would be no beach, but Pilkey was concerned about the economic hardship of actually demolishing large buildings.
Miller advised investing more in green infrastructure, and said it was important to do so now. “Having been through a number of hurricanes, I can tell you, don’t expect enlightened policymaking in the aftermath of a storm.”
Lawmakers in North Carolina, panelists said, have not been open to the scientific data. When Riggs and other North Carolina scientists projected 39 inches of rising sea level by 2,100, the legislature “rejected it,” Riggs said. “They threw it in the trash.”
There’s always a gap, panelists agreed between scientific understand and public policy, but Miller said the gap had worsened in the past 10 years. The solution, panelists said, is better science education.
“If we don’t have an educated public we’ll never get off the ground with any of this,” Riggs said to loud applause.
During the question and answer session, an audience member called the panel out for its “anti-market bias.” “I don’t understand the reluctance to just turn it over to the market,” he said. “I hear people like you talk all the time and you just don’t seem to wanna turn to the market for some of these solutions. You keep talking about the science and never understand if you force somebody to make an economic decision that is a very real concrete decision. Why is that?”
Miller said that the response was not being forced upon people, but rather residents along the coast who have been effected by the rising sea level are demanding and asking for change.
Dave Burton, who said he was nominated but not appointed to the state’s Coastal Resource Commission’s science panel, questioned why the commission appeared to waver on whether or not global warming was causing sea level rise. Burton also pointed out that he would have been the only Republican on the panel if he’d been appointed.
Rudolph, who served on the commission with Riggs, replied, saying, “We shifted focus on why it’s rising to – these are the numbers. It’s a blend of natural sea level rise and also human induced.”
Riggs added, “It is not a Democratic versus Republican issue. The science panel was not a political panel it was a science panel – period.”