Getting it right on sea-level change in NC

By the time the Inquisition forced Galileo to recant his belief that Earth was not the center of the solar system, it really didn’t matter anymore. Anyone with a telescope could see that Earth circled the sun rather than the other way around.

Today, anyone with a smartphone can access one of many credible observational platforms and see that sea level has risen measurably over the past few decades and continues to do so. As North Carolina’s science panel on sea-level rise and its coastal effects prepares to release its report at the end of the month, it’s important to keep this in mind.

If recent history is any guide, there will be skeptics who, despite the evidence, will continue to deny that climate patterns are changing or that sea-levels are rising at all. At the other extreme will be the alarmists who believe that retreat from coastal areas (and the sooner the better) is the only solution. Unfortunately, the ideologies underlying these positions are not at all helpful in determining what, if anything, should be done and when decisions to do it will have to be made.

First, we need to acknowledge that there are two separate but related aspects of this issue that operate on different timescales. Although sea-level is definitely rising, even the best projections of where it will be in 2050 or 2100 are just that, projections. There is and will remain time to observe what is occurring along the coast and adapt along the way.

The only likely certainty in this regard is that any decisions made today will be overtaken by future events. As a result, each succeeding generation will need to have the flexibility to act based on what is occurring in their time and should not be locked onto a path by today’s decisions from which they have no exit.

The next issue is more immediate. Regardless of whether the magnitude and/or frequency of tropical storms increases in the future as a result of climate change, we must be adequately prepared for them now.

Coastal North Carolina has a long history of extreme weather and what needs to be done to prepare for these events is independent of how climate patterns may change in the future.

For example, the ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from extreme storm events are essential elements of resilient communities. Ensuring that people are well-informed, our emergency managers are well-trained and adequately resourced, warning systems and evacuation routes fully functional, and infrastructure and buildings designed and constructed to survive extreme events are priorities today and will remain so far into the future.

Despite our best efforts to identify and avoid the hazards of an uncertain future, extreme storm events will occur and affect us nevertheless. How well we recover from them will depend on the degree to which we have invested (mentally, physically and fiscally) in the basic building blocks of a resilient society. At the end of the day, the primary concern of North Carolina officials should be that they make people safer, both now and in the future.

Whether they choose to be guided by the forthcoming report on sea-level rise or ignore it entirely is irrelevant. Their responsibility to the people of this state is clear. They must ensure the safety and economic well-being of its residents. How well future changes and their effects are anticipated and addressed will have a profound effect on the lives of millions, not just those living along the coast. Uncertain though the future may be, uncertainty does not justify inaction.

Richard G. Little is a resident of Pinehurst and a Visiting Research Scholar in disaster mitigation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.