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The State That 'Outlawed Climate Change' Accepts Latest Sea-Level Rise Report

Nags Head
Dave DeWitt

North Carolina became forever known around the world as the state that outlawed climate change a few minutes after 11:30 p.m. on June 4th, 2012. That’s when satirical newsman Stephen Colbert boiled down the General Assembly’s actions into a tight, easy-to-repeat headline.

“I think this is a brilliant solution,” comedian Stephen Colbert said that night. “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”

Of course, the problem wasn’t solved.

Five years ago, the Science Panel of the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commissioner presented a report that outlined the possibility that sea levels along the coast could rise as much as 39 inches over the next 100 years. Reaction from local land managers and developers was quick and overwhelmingly negative. The General Assembly passed a law forbidding communities from using the report to pass new rules.

And then, Colbert happened.

North Carolina was ridiculed by news aggregators, traditional media, on social media and in op-eds. Now, almost three years later, the scientists have come back with a new report. It still predicts that sea levels will rise, but since it only looks 30 years out, the amount of rise is not anywhere near the levels predicted in the first report.

The changes made it much more palatable to the people who fought against the original.

“We believe that the report before you today is a much better and thorough report that encompasses not only a scientific approach but just plain common sense that is applicable in today’s development world,” Heather Jarman, a lobbyist for real estate and development in Wilmington, told the Coastal Resources Commission last week in Dare County.

She was hardly the only one offering praise.

“It was just a few years ago where North Carolina was the punch line of a lot of jokes regarding this particular topic,” said Neal Andrew, a member of the CRC. “And I think the report that was done most recently by the science panel was very through, very professional, and is something we should all be proud of.”

The shorter time frame was not the only change that diffused the politically-charged situation. Frank Gorham, the CRC chairman, also fought off calls to put climate-change deniers on the Science Panel and set up two out-of-state peer reviewers.

“The process worked perfectly,” Gorham said. “Politics was not involved in this decision. We recognized the value of the science panel and they recognized the value of our peer-review group and they respected each other and we got the results in.”

sea level rise
Credit Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) at East Carolina University
Sea level rise will impact a large portion of eastern North Carolina.

  Praise for the new report might be widespread, but it is hardly complete and universal. Many say looking only 30 years out will not help with planning large-scale public projects like bridges and hospitals that are designed to last longer than the three decade predictions.

On the other side of the spectrum, some are still not yet ready to accept overwhelming scientific consensus.

“The most important fact that everyone needs to understand about sea-level is that it has not accelerated at all in response to human greenhouse gas emissions,” said Dave Burton, a frequent critic of the Science Panel.

Clearly, the debate will continue. What is unclear is what decision makers will do with the mild to moderate sea-level rise predicted in different locations by this report.

Gorham, chair of the CRC, has already indicated that he thinks local communities are better equipped than the state to come up with new plans.

“Because the tide gauges showed us emphatically that there’s a difference between the north and south part of the state,” Gorham said. “So I don’t know how we come up with a statewide regulation that addresses those differences.”

Even if it does not prompt statewide action, the new report has already – in the minds of people like Larry Baldwin- accomplished an important goal. Baldwin is now a member of the CRC; before that, he was a driving force behind NC-20, the group of developers and land managers that fought so hard against the first report.

“We’ve come a long way,” Baldwin said. “And I really do hope that Stephen Colbert can’t get any more material out of us, because I think this is a much more factual report.”

The fight over the sea-level rise report has outlasted the show that brought it so much attention in the first place, as Stephen Colbert- at least the character – has retired.

The new sea-level rise report will now go through a lengthy public-comment period before it gets to the General Assembly next year.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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