This summer, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives tacked onto a military funding bill a provision that prohibits the use of federal funds by the military to study global climate change or even to plan how to respond to it.U.S. Rep. Ken Buck from Colorado called the military concern with global climate change a radical climate change agenda.
It is surprising that a major political party in this age of enlightenment has a central “plank” in its party doctrine showing skepticism about global climate change. Commonly, the skepticism includes the assumption that humans bear no responsibility for the sea-level and climate changes occurring. It is an example of what columnist Leonard Pitts called “the alternative reality of conservative orthodoxy.”
No better example exists of an immediate military requirement than the need to raise the Navy’s docks and piers to accommodate the rising sea. Recently four of the piers at the Norfolk Naval facility have been refurbished with sea-level rise in mind. Sea-level rise had already ruined phone and electrical wires and pipes on the underside of the piers by exposure to rising salt water.
On a North Carolina state level, the McCrory administration and the Republican legislature aren’t doing much better than their federal colleagues. North Carolina has done more than any other coastal state to downplay the importance of sea-level rise. The Coastal Resources Commission has decreed that we will look into the future only for the next 30 years, which in other words means we are preparing for a sea-level rise of perhaps 8 inches.
Contrast this to San Francisco where the bay is expanding as is the City of San Francisco. The city is expanding to accommodate a rising population, and the bay is expanding to accommodate a rising sea. In spite of the rising sea, extensive developments are planned on four low-lying landfill areas that protrude into the bay. On these sites, the City of San Francisco now requires developers to take into account the projections of sea-level rise up to the year 2100 and even beyond.
The city baseline has been set at a 66-inch sea-level rise, which is the maximum rise by the year 2100 in the “unlikely but possible category” of sea-level rise as projected by the National Research Council. San Francisco could have chosen the more conservative route by using the “most likely“ category of projected sea-level rise – 36 inches.
Ironically, the impact of a rising sea on the North Carolina shoreline will be more immediate and much greater than that on the bay. Besides flooding and storm surge increases, a problem for both shorelines, North Carolina must worry about shoreline retreat and the maintenance of beaches. In the areas planned for development in San Francisco Bay, essentially everything is seawalled to block shoreline retreat, and beaches are insignificant.
The City of San Francisco recognizes its responsibility to future generations that will pay for the mistakes we make today. But neither the legislators in Washington nor those in Raleigh seem to recognize their responsibility to future generations with regard to the rising sea.
The denial in Washington of the reality of sea-level rise strongly affects the long-term national military readiness. Likewise, in our state, the denial by the McCrory administration of a long-term view of sea-level rise affects our sea-level rise readiness.
In North Carolina, the 30-year span is a reflection of a toothless coastal management program. But it wasn’t always this way. North Carolina, in the 1980s, led the nation in thinking of future generations by prohibiting beach-damaging seawalls and requiring setback lines controlling shorefront development. Now the CRC is regrettably allowing the construction line to move seaward on Oak Island and Carolina Beach, a move that will open previously off-limits hazardous oceanfront lots to development.
So now we will continue to build beachfront buildings, build more bridges and nourish more beaches to bring more people to the beach so some of us will make a lot more money. And the U.S. Navy will continue to largely ignore the Congress and continue raising docks and piers – as it knows it must.
Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.