Pilkey: The Paris agreement, climate change, NC coast and rising seas

Water from the Atlantic Ocean rolls over N.C. 12 at the north end of Buxton on Hatteras Island in 2012 as Hurricane Sandy waves batter the island.
Water from the Atlantic Ocean rolls over N.C. 12 at the north end of Buxton on Hatteras Island in 2012 as Hurricane Sandy waves batter the island. AP

Now that we as a nation have divorced ourselves from the Paris Agreement on reduction of carbon emissions and global climate change, it’s time for us to do some self-examination. We assume that our abstention will ultimately add to the carbon-emissions problem, perhaps discourage other countries and have some impact on sea-level rise.

Participation in this agreement would have been important to North Carolina for two reasons. First, because of our coast’s particular vulnerability to sea-level rise, and second, because our state government’s poor coastal management program is not seriously preparing for sea-level rise.

The 350-mile open-ocean coast of North Carolina is made up almost entirely of barrier islands, those flexible ribbons of sand which, if left alone, can move back to escape the sea-level rise. If not left alone and if covered with buildings, the same island migration processes will occur, but instead of moving the island they will destroy the development.

Our barrier islands are a particularly vulnerable lot, compared with those to the north and south. Those developed islands, as a general rule, are larger and more sand-rich. Also, we have relatively high wave energy striking our shorelines, reaching a maximum wave height (on average the highest on the east coast) at Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks. The high waves reflect a narrow continental shelf that provides less friction between the waves and the shelf, compared with wider shelves like that off Georgia. In addition, we have a large fetch, or distance, over which waves can build up, since the nearest land mass is in the vicinity of Casablanca.

The North Carolina coastal management program may be the weakest on the southeastern U.S. coast. For planning purposes, we are looking ahead only 30 years, which is ridiculous, given the anticipated sea-level rise rate. We should at least be looking ahead to the end of this century.

We continue to build beachfront buildings, even encouraging such construction on nourished beaches. North Carolina is currently spending a billion dollars on five new or replacement bridges to bring more people to our islands, and we are whittling away at our once pioneering regulations against hard stabilization. Fundamentally we are developing our coast in a manner suitable for the good old days when sea-level rise wasn’t in the tea leaves.

President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement may have serious consequences for North Carolina and our precious coast. In his withdrawal speech, he made no reference to the fact that the Paris Agreement is the first global step in the direction of slowing down the sea-level rise. New York, California and Washington state, plus a number of cities, have announced they will abide by the agreement to the best of their ability. North Carolina and the Triangle region should play our small part and join those people.

Orrin H. Pilkey is the James B. Duke professor emeritus at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University.