18 Jun 2012: Opinion

Shoot the Messenger: Carolina’s
Costly Mistake on Sea Level Rise

The North Carolina Senate has approved legislation that would prohibit the state from considering projected sea level increases in its coastal management strategy. But a scientist involved in the debate argues that ignoring these projections will wind up costing North Carolina — and the rest of the U.S. — far more.

by rob young

The state Senate in North Carolina voted overwhelmingly last week to pass a bill on sea level rise that has been widely reported in the national media.  This bill prevents all state and local agencies from developing regulations or planning documents that consider the possibility of a significant increase in the rate of sea level rise in the future.  In other words, when looking for guidance on how to protect the coastal economy and environment over the next century, the state’s planners may only look backward to historical data, not forward to expected changes in the Earth’s climate dynamics,

This bill has been widely ridiculed in many news outlets and science blogs, culminating with a biting satire of the proposal by Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. Personally, the whole thing just makes me sad.

I serve on the science panel that advises the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission (CRC).  Two years ago, the CRC solicited a report from the panel that would summarize the state of the science regarding sea-
The commission decided to ignore our report and recommended doing nothing about sea level rise.
level rise and recommend the expected increase that planners should consider when looking down the road to 2100.  Our report included a detailed review of the published literature.  It was externally peer-reviewed by out-of-state scientists.  It contained no alarmist rhetoric or nightmare scenarios.  The final recommendation was for the state to plan for 39 inches of sea level rise.  This number corresponds well with expert reports produced in other states.

The reaction to our report was rapid and effective.  NC-20, a group purporting to represent North Carolina’s coastal counties, attacked both the integrity of the science panel members and the body of sea level rise literature that was reviewed.  The rebuttal consisted largely of oft-repeated arguments pulled from the climate skeptic blogosphere, along with an adamant assertion that predicting the future is impossible.  To the great surprise of those of us on the state’s science panel, these tactics have worked. 

Following tremendous political pressure from NC-20, the Coastal Resources Commission decided to ignore our report and recommended doing nothing about sea level rise at this point.  One would think that victory would have halted the debate, but it then prompted a state Senate committee to approve the legislation that passed the full Senate last week. The bill now moves on to the North Carolina House of Representatives.

All relevant, major scientific organizations in the United States — including the National Academy of Sciences, the Geological Society of America, the American Geophysical Union, and others — have issued statements indicating that the rate of sea level rise during the next 100 years is going
Assertions that talk of sea level rise will ruin the coastal economy are absurd.
to be considerably higher than that of the last 100 years, which was roughly 8 inches.  North Carolina became the first state to directly contradict that overwhelming, peer-reviewed scientific consensus and to tie the hands of localities that would like to plan pro-actively for these changes. Virginia followed suit last week, with lawmakers there voting to fund a study on the state’s coastline only if references to climate change and sea level rise were expunged.

I have received many emails and phone calls from other scientists over the last two weeks pledging their assistance and volunteering to “come help educate the senators” in North Carolina. Sadly, I don’t think it will help.  Quite frankly, those fighting the need to plan for accelerated sea level rise in coastal North Carolina do not want to be “educated.”

They assert that talk of sea level rise will ruin the coastal economy, impact insurance rates, and deter coastal development.  This is absurd.

First of all, the insurance industry is well aware of the science behind global climate change and the prevailing projections of sea level rise.  They have funded much research into the science, hazards, and risks associated with sea level rise, coastal erosion, and storms.  Nothing in the science panel’s report comes as a surprise to the insurers.

Second, the real and immediate threat along the North Carolina coast remains property damage resulting from storms, which may increase in intensity this century as the world warms.  Some areas of the U.S. have
The best way to prepare for sea level rise is to do a better job preparing for major storm impacts.
experienced multiple storm impacts, yet their coastal economies continue to thrive.  Dauphin Island, Alabama has been nearly wiped off the map several times in the last 30 years.  Each time the barrier island was rebuilt, and the economy there chugs along. One might question whether this is good policy. But it is hard to imagine that something as abstract as a 100-year projection for rising sea level is going to impact the coastal economy when the reality of storm impacts has not slowed coastal growth.

No one has proposed evacuating the coast.  If you are building a single-family home, or a subdivision, you probably don’t need to do anything other than what’s required by federal flood insurance — account for major storms and elevate new construction on pilings. In many respects, the best way to prepare for sea level rise over the next two to three decades is simply to do a better job of preparing for major storm impacts. 

Some existing homeowners in low-lying areas do need to be concerned about future sea level rise. So does government at all levels. If you are building major infrastructure, a large port facility, or planning storm water runoff for a city, it would be foolish not to take the potential for sea level rise into consideration. Many governments, from the local to the federal level, are already doing so.


Florida Counties Band Together
To Ready for Warming’s Effects

Florida Counties Band Together To Ready for Warming’s Effects
While U.S. action on climate change remains stalled, Michael Lemonick writes that four south Florida counties have joined forces to plan for how to deal with the impacts — some of which are already being felt.
Why should anyone else care about this issue?  Because poor coastal planning costs us all.  Coastal communities receive a variety of federal and state subsidies that offset the risks associated with building in areas vulnerable to storms and sea level rise.  These subsidies include post-storm disaster assistance, subsidized insurance, funds for beach nourishment and coastal protection projects, and many others.

Even in the near term, rising sea level is going to make maintaining coastal infrastructure more expensive.  Over the long-term, these costs will only increase.  Significant portions of the risk are born by all taxpayers.  We once took this fiscal responsibility seriously in North Carolina. Not any more.

POSTED ON 18 Jun 2012 IN Climate Policy & Politics North America 


Let's see -

We're 13 years into the 21st century. So tell me, is sea level rise on track for 9 inches or 39 inches this century?

The other issue is, each year that sea level does NOT rise at the rate required for your 39 inches, it must rise that much FASTER for the next set of years in order to meet your predictions — another issue that historical data does not bear out as happening.

The great thing about historical rise data is that it will catch up. So if, in 10 years, you can substantiate your rather ridiculous claim that sea levels are rising at .500 inch per year as opposed to the current ~.090 inches per year, then you may be able to bring some FACTS to the table, and not just dogmatic proclamations.

Playstation(C) Climatology may be fun in the lab, but out here in the real world, we don't like spending money or losing our freedoms because some poorly programmed, hyper-tweaked "simulation" says that something MAY happen.

Posted by Stan B on 19 Jun 2012

Actually..... In the "REAL WORLD" people spend money all the time because something "may happen". It is called insurance. I have it. You have it. And people on the coast have it. Only their risk is underwritten by the rest of the taxpayers in the state of North Carolina. So, maybe the prospect of sea level rising faster during the next 100 years than it did during the last 100 years doesn't bother you, but it does matter to all of the NC taxpayers who will have to bail out those who choose to invest in property at or near sea level.

Planning for what "MAY" happen is called risk management, and it doesn't impact anyone's freedom or liberty.

I agree, that sea level is not currently rising at a rate that would hit 39 " by 2100. This is why the Science Panel's report recommended revising the projection every five years (a very reasonable suggestion that is often ignored). The bill in the legislature, however, allows for no such flexibility. The future can only look like the past. End of story.

Finally, you would like to believe that our projections are "dogmatic" (your word). But, let me assure you that the NC Science panel is anything but dogmatic. The members include engineers and a variety of scientists. We have significant representation from former and current employees of the US Army Corps of Engineers. These are not climate alarmists. We did not have our report vetted by Al Gore, nor do we connive to ruin the coastal economy. We were asked to produce a report on the state of the science. We did. Suggesting that there was political motivation behind the report may serve your purpose of argument, but it is completely unfounded.

Posted by Rob Young on 19 Jun 2012

Stan B's last sentence is hilarious. The current planning standard is to predict future rise based on historic data, which as he admits is for a rise of 9 versus 39 inches. So, he is in fact acknowledging that we should plan for a rise of 9 inches while maintaining we should not "lose our freedoms" over what "may" happen. It's like the old agruments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Pick the number. Burn the witches. Hilarious. Scary.

Posted by Paula Fitzpatrick on 20 Jun 2012

Video of the Science Panel meeting shows a member say, 'What's the big deal. Let's just wait 5 years and see what happens." So, why is it so many folks and the media don't want to hear both (or all) sides of the issue, and don't care about verifiable data? Don’t know about you, but I get suspicious when the experts won’t answer questions, and don't want to hear any facts.

Bill Price, Pine Knoll Shores

Posted by Bill Price on 20 Jun 2012

Dear Professor:

Can you direct me to the best source of vetted and peer reviewed, up to the minute data on ocean levels? Would that be NOAA, or do you have a better suggestion?


Posted by Henry Cavanagh on 20 Jun 2012

Imagine hiring a doctor as a general practitioner. As part of her services you want her to prepare a report in order for you to buy life insurance. You are a pack and a half a day cigarette smoker, among other things. Now, you tell her, no, you cannot say I may get cancer (of course, one cannot say for certainty that you, individually will get cancer from the cigarettes). I need this insurance, therefore, you need to IGNORE YOUR PROFESSIONAL DUTIES and submit a falsified, illegal document in order for me to get the insurance. That is what this bill amounts to, and the property risk insurance industry should be filing lawsuits this minute against it as a blatant legalization of fraudulent directives intended to strip their industry of their rightful money.

Posted by Henry Cavanagh on 20 Jun 2012

Your 39 inches is right in the middle of what The Netherlands adopted as their estimate for sea level rise by 2100, i.e. 25 to 51 inches.

I'm not sure many people grasp that the prediction is this sea level rise process will accelerate for centuries as only one of the legacies we will be leaving to our descendants in exchange for our addiction to fossil fuels.

The Dutch are planning for 13 feet of sea level rise by 2200. They say they can handle it.

It is interesting to compare what the Dutch are planning to spend on their plan every year for the next 200 years, i.e. $1.5 billion, to what they say they are protecting, 65 percent of their country generating $450 billion in GDP now. The cost is 1/300 of the GDP generated by what they are aiming to protect.

My house was insured under US National Flood Insurance against flood as if it would flood in the 1 percent chance event for $2000 a year, to protect an investment of $220,000, or 1/110.

The Dutch plan seems quite affordable compared to what people subject to flooding in the U.S. pay for insurance, and they are looking ahead, not sticking their heads in the sand.

North Carolina was supposed to lead the U.S. in coming to grips with sea level rise. I wonder if the Senate bill will become law. I wonder what FEMA will do in response. As far back as 1991
FEMA was saying pay attention to what science comes up with on this. And FEMA retains final
authority when it comes to creating flood maps and setting NFIP rates.

Posted by David Lewis on 21 Jun 2012

I can wait. We'll see who's correct. My money is on Science.

Posted by Steve Boss on 21 Jun 2012

Our government should have placed a law 75 years ago that no one and I mean NO ONE be allowed to build on the coast line. This way everyone would be allowed to visit and enjoy the water and nature. How sad and I mean how sad what man has done to this planet and of course we need only to FOLLOW THE MONEY. I lived in the Myrtle Beach, SC area for l year the coast line in some of the smaller towns are contaminated with chemicals. In one town you could not breathe the chemicals were so bad.

Thank you to our government and the people where FOLLOW THE MONEY applies... Man will destroy man, and yes, the water level is rising and the planet needs to try and heal itself. Thank you to the Government and the laws that were never in place to protect our planet and the ones that "do their part" and honor and respect nature and this beautiful planet. Man needs to stop the insanity, however, mother nature will win in the end and what goes around comes around. GOD BLESS OUR PLANET AND THE FUTURE GENERATIONS IF THERE IS ONE. New Hampshire does not allow building on the shore line. Hampton Beach is lovely and safe.

Posted by Joanne on 21 Jun 2012

Where were these scientists during lectures about evidence and scientific standards?

The sea has been rising for about 150 years. Over any period of a decade or greater the rise has been absolutely constant. It has also, of course, been very low. Too low to affect the coastline to anything like the degree that erosion and deposition do, or in some places the tectonic activity.

I can't say for sure for NC, but I reckon the Senate has far more sense than its critics on this issue.

Posted by Doubting Rich on 22 Jun 2012

Doubting Rich: Please give us links to your peer reviewed papers supporting your position. I want to read them.

Posted by Henry Cavanagh on 22 Jun 2012

Read how tectonic plates are partly to blame for the perception of ocean rising. Climate Change
or Tectonic Shifts The Mystery of the Sinking South Pacific Islands http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/south-pacific-islands-threatened-by-more-than-just-rising-sea-levels-a-838675.html.

Posted by randydutton on 22 Jun 2012

It is true that predictions are just predictions but it is obvious that the society is causing a huge impact on the environment. States should follow the example of Costa Rica that has set the goal of becoming the first carbon nuetral country in the world. This is not all about money, it is about living in a healthy world. We can start acting green right now www.costarica-me.com

Posted by Kenneth on 23 Jun 2012

The N.C. bill calls for sea level calculations based on measured changes, and can be based on regional differences. This is perfectly reasonable, and based on sound scientific practices. The bill states, "These rates shall be determined using statistically significant, peer-reviewed historical data generated using generally accepted scientific and statistical techniques. Historic rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends. Rates of sea-level rise shall not be one rate for the entire coast, but rather the Commission shall consider separately oceanfront and estuarine shorelines."

As I understand it, this bill was necessary because someone in the commission wanted to choose the highest local level of SLR projected as its regulatory level. Apparently, cooler heads prevailed in the legislature.

Posted by Daniel on 26 Jun 2012

Key part of speech in the bill that essentially blocks the legality of new studies on future sea level rise: "consistent with historic trends."

This is the most alarming and unreasonable part of the bill that blatantly goes against a resounding body of evidence attesting to the legitimacy of sea level rise. We need to get bad science out of politics...and replace it with the best models and verifiable evidence we have. The first part of doing this is to carefully monitor the earth and prepare business, society, and ultimately people to what our experts tell us, (second part being differentiating between good and bad information). Only then can we start to limit our scope of unrestrained growth and recognize that which is everything that means anything to us: the Earth.

Posted by Jamison Douglas on 28 Jun 2012

I do not consider historic trends either alarming or unreasonable. While I would prefer not to see any bill of this type passed through any legislature, attempting to replace this "bad science" based on historical evidence with other "bad science," based on model predictions does not provide any improvement. Best models and verifiable evidence do not match. Therefore, on which would you prefer we base future growth? At present, I would opt for verifiable evidence, with the understanding that historical trends may change in the future.

Posted by Daniel on 09 Jul 2012

Over the last twenty years, we have been given a lot of projections of significant and accelerating rises in land, sea and atmospheric temperatures. When the observations have been well below the projections, the claim has been made that the "missing" heat has gone into the oceans. Now we have the Argo floats, which are not supporting that thesis.

Likewise, we have corresponding projections about accelerating sea level rises. But they're not accelerating - they seem to be plodding on at the same rate, just as if the ocean is filling up a bit more after the last Little Ice Age.

I think it is for reasons such as these, that legislators and their ordinary voters, are asking "What's really going on here?"

So do I.

Posted by Peter Kemmis on 09 Sep 2012

If I may Peter, what is going on here, are advocates pretending to be scientists.

This has nothing to do with any observed data and everything to do with funding.

What the NC Legislature has done is simply state that good scientific historical data is more reliable than computer models based heavily on speculation. Simply put, good historical data is how science has worked for thousands of years. And quite well I might add. Just as historical data gathered in the past 16 years has demonstrated earth's temperatures have not increased. You may wish to argue with that observation but there can be no doubt that we haven't seen temperatures rise to the catastrophic levels predicted by the models on which you place so much emphasis on your own predictions.

As a marine biologist with a degree in marine technology, I cannot understand how any other scientist can find fault in the NC Legislature promoting good scientific practice....other than for the purpose of obtaining additional funding for their program through shameful scare tactics.

I additionally take offense at your use of the phrase "...oft-repeated arguments pulled from the climate skeptic blogosphere.." What exactly is a climate skeptic Rob? Are you implying there are individuals that are skeptical that 'climate' exists? No, you understand such a scenario does not exist. You are intentionally misleading your readers while denigrating those that disagree with your wild assertions based entirely on computer models.

And why is being a 'skeptic' considered a bad thing by those that claim to have a scientific mind? Isn't it necessary for one to be skeptical if they wished to pursue the sciences? You seem to have forgotten that much needed scientific mindset Rob.

"Shoot the Messenger"? A violent, yet catchy phrase worthy of an advocate that wishes a bit too hard for his fortune-telling to be taken seriously however, not worthy of a scientist.

Posted by Hugh K on 05 Nov 2012

Politicians and other learned men....my apologies for the the oxymoron...who disagree with the basic principles outlined in this topic, please do not become ostriches. Take a look at what is occurring on a global scale, not just what is happening in your own backyard.

Ask the people of New Jersey and New York how they are thinking at this present time! Oh! It's not really anything to be concerned about, it was just a freak storm...and I guess "Irene" last year was something similar, it only happens once in a life time!!! Could in occur next year, or maybe the year after.

What about the summer that you have just gone through in the US. Record high temperatures, huge wild fires, drought, etc. No that's just normal??

Record breaking temperatures and huge fires in Russia, the record breaking massive ice melt at the Noth Pole...hang on that's not going to cause ocean levels to rise...correct, BUT, the increase in temperaturein polar regions did not increase the glacier ice melt in Greenland, did it? Of course not.

Think again my learned friends. it most certainly did and this, indeed will cause sea levels to rise.

I can go on relating events in Australia where I reside, or what has happened in China, India, Pakistan, Africa, etc. But, whatever you do, do not mention climate change or global warming, because it just isn't happening. Unfortunately your wrong thinking will not stop it, or the problems that it is going to bring with it.

Posted by John Barltrop on 14 Nov 2012

For Stan B on rate of sea level rise 6/19/12, global average sea level rose at an average rate of around 1.7 ± 0.3 mm per year from 1950 to 2009 and at a satellite-measured average rate of about 3.3 ± 0.4 mm per year from 1993 to 2009. From Wikipedia. (Footnotes can be found at Wikipedia.)

Posted by Bill b on 19 Nov 2012

NOAA has records for sea level rise for many coastal places in the U.S. In NC they have 5 locations with data. The longest running NC records are at Wilmington and Beaufort, around 70 and 60 years long respectively, and show a stable, steady average rate of rise throughout those periods. These 2 records average at just over 2.3 mm/yr or about 9-10 inches in 100 years. Duck has the highest rate for records lasting just over 30 years, at 4.6 mm/yr or about 18" in 100 years. So 39" in the next 100 years is certainly far, far out of the bounds of past measured trends on the NC coast. The only locations in the U.S. close to 39" in 100 years is on coastal Louisiana.

Posted by Mark B. on 18 Dec 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Rob Young is professor of coastal geology at Western Carolina University and director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines. He is co-author, with Orrin Pilkey, of The Rising Sea. He also writes for the website CoastalCare.org. In a previous article for Yale Environment 360, Young criticized plans to build a 45-mile sand berm in the Gulf of Mexico.



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