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Legislating away climate change

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists concur that sea levels will rise significantly over the coming century, and that this increase is accelerating. Estimates vary, but the projected rise in sea levels is 3-6 feet, with the larger figure recommended for infrastructure planning purposes. This is the figure that coastal communities up and down the Atlantic coast and across the globe have been working with.

But in an interesting case of climate change denial, as satired recently by Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, North Carolina is considering a law that would overrule these estimates and mandate planning for a much smaller increase in sea level based only on historical trends. Section 2e of the proposed North Carolina bill states that the projected sea levels 100 years from now “shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.”

“We’re skeptical of the rising sea level science,” says Tom Thompson, chairman of the economic development group representing the North Carolina’s coastal counties that lobbied the state to reduce its estimates on how much sea levels would rise. The state was projecting a 39 inch rise. “Our concern is that the economy could be tremendously impacted by a hypothetical number with nothing but computers and speculation.” At the behest of Thompson’s group and coastal governments, the state decided to remove the 39 inch estimate from its policy altogether.

Other parts of the North Carolina bill are also concerning but these haven’t been highlighted yet by critics, including that: only the governor will be able to determine what constitutes a coastal area; no state entity will be able to adopt any policies addressing sea-level rise unless authorized to do so by the state assembly and unless this public entity is located within a coastal-area county; new oceanfront setback rules may be created for coastal communities;  environmental and development regulations may be loosened to account for shifting inlets; and more.

Not to vilify North Carolina or its citizens. The state has a long history of science research and innovation, from the Wright brothers through the world class science research being done today in Raleigh-Durham’s research triangle. Every state has its bad bills (who wants to talk about evolution?) and this is one of them—for now, it’s just politics. In fact, the North Carolina state government formed a climate change panel in 2005 that worked hard to come up with recommendations for the state’s General Assembly, but this panel adjourned five years later with no new laws to show for their efforts. “The Climate Change Commission missed the boat, said Roy Cordato, vice president for research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation. “If it wanted to get any legislation passed it should’ve done so years ago, when people cared more about the issue. Now polls show people are more likely to believe there are ghosts or that aliens will attack the Earth.”

Also, there’s no certainty that this bill will be signed into law or will remain in force a generation from now. For now, it’s just an interesting look into the current politicization of science.

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