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North Carolina Literally Passed Laws Against Science on Sea-Level Rises

PETER DOCKRILL
13 SEP 2018

History is a valuable teacher, but there are some topics it knows nothing about.

So when lawmakers in North Carolina controversially proposed a bill in 2011 to ban scientific predictions of accelerated sea level rise that were inconsistent with outdated "historical data", it literally became a joke.

 

"If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal," Stephen Colbert quipped. "Problem solved."

Despite the controversy, an amended version of the bill – known as HB 819 and backed by a business-backed consortium of North Carolina property owners called NC–20 – passed shortly thereafter in 2012.

With the "no-kidding nightmare" of Hurricane Florence now bearing down upon North Carolina and the rest of the east coast, the somber irony in all this is how swiftly NC–20's efforts became so dangerously self-defeating.

The groups' moribund website outlines its major goals in diverting doublespeak: "Science-based environmental regulation" and "Science-based sea-level rise projections".

But above those concerns, their core ideal sits paramount: "Equitable treatment of coastal homeowners in the matter of homeowners and dwelling insurance".

In other words, this was about property values and business interests.

Sadly, the potentially devastating Hurricane Florence – now downgraded to Category 2, although it was feared to become the strongest storm to ever make landfall north of Florida – will not be good for coastal property, and North Carolina's ill-fated law to ignore and deny climate change only comes across as, well, ignorant and denialist.

 

"Sea level rising, simply put, makes every coastal flood deeper and more destructive," Climate Central CEO Ben Strauss, who runs a climate news nonprofit, told HuffPost.

"Ignoring it is incredibly dangerous."

Even more sharply to the point, scientists are increasingly discovering (and telling us) that while climate change might not cause hurricanes like Florence, it is making fierce weather fiercer.

"Quite simply, Hurricane Florence is a storm made worse by climate change," writes meteorologist Eric Holthaus in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

"A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour – producing heavier downpours and providing more energy to hurricanes, boosting their destructive potential. We already have evidence of these trends from around the world. This is no longer just a theory."

In defence of North Carolina's representatives, not every voice disputed the science back in 2012.

"By putting our heads in the sand, literally, we are not helping property owners," Democrat Deborah K. Ross said at the time in vocal criticism of the bill.

"We are hurting them. We are not giving them information they might need to protect their property. Ignorance is not bliss. It's dangerous."

 

The background behind HB 819 is tied to a 2010 report assessing sea-level rise along North Carolina's coasts, which predicted the ocean would likely reach 1 metre (39 inches) higher by 2100, although it pointed out an even greater surge was possible.

Fearing this gloomy science would hamper economic development in the region, pro-business groups fought against its inclusion in any aspects of state coastal management – and for the most part succeeded.

Now, six years later, almost 1.5 million people have been ordered to evacuate the east coast.

You can only wonder how many of them live and work in areas in North Carolina that could have been better protected against threats like Florence – or even abandoned outright – if only scientists had been listened to, rather than legislated against.

"Coastal development flourishes as more beachfront buildings, highways, and bridges are built to ease access to our beautiful beaches," coastal geologist Orrin H. Pilkey from Duke University wrote in The News & Observer last week.

"The time has come to recognise that we cannot hold the shoreline still as the level of the sea rises… We must begin the retreat now."

In the face of Hurricane Florence, with so many people's lives at stake, nobody should be indulging in recriminations right now, let alone schadenfreude.

But just because the storm is at our door, it's also no excuse for forgetting how human actions and non-actions may have seriously worsened this calamity.

That's important history that we can learn from.