NC banned a study on sea-level rise. Could it mean more Hurricane Florence destruction?

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North Carolina legislators voted in 2012 to ban the use of a report that showed the ocean could rise as much as 39 inches by 2100.

Now, with Hurricane Florence bearing down on the Carolinas, and thousands evacuating from the coast, that decision is once again making national headlines and drawing criticism from those who say state leaders who approved the bill were nearsighted.

Some are saying the 2012 law could mean more damage from storms like Florence.

In 2010, a panel of scientists from the Coastal Resources Commission presented a report that showed sea levels along the Carolina coast could rise 39 inches over a century, which could put 2,000 square miles in jeopardy.

But that report was not well received. Some lawmakers, lobbyists, real-estate interests and others thought the report could disrupt valuable coastal real estate development and increase insurance costs, ABC News reported in 2012.

So they sought to undercut the scientists’ work.

“After a wide-ranging debate on the validity of climate-change science Tuesday, state lawmakers agreed to ban any state agencies from making policies on sea-level change until 2016,” John Frank wrote for The News & Observer in 2012.

“Republican lawmakers had sought to quash a March 2010 report from scientists with the Coastal Resources Commission that projected a 20-to-55-inch sea-level rise by the end of the century, disputing the science because it would hurt coastal development,” the N&O reported.

‘Sink or swim’

When the bill passed in June 2012, it became the butt of national jokes and the subject of widespread derision.

Stephen Colbert, in “The Word” segment of “The Colbert Report,” said the North Carolina legislature’s effort to undermine the sea-level report was equivalent to outlawing science.

“If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved,” the comedian said. “Bravo North Carolina. By making this bold action on climate change today, you’re insuring that when it actually comes, you’ll have plenty of options, or at least two: Sink or swim.”

House Bill 819 became a law without the signature of then-Gov. Bev Perdue on Aug. 3, 2012.

“North Carolina should not ignore science when making public policy decisions. House Bill 819 will become law because it allows local governments to use their own scientific studies to define rates of sea level change,” Perdue wrote in a statement following the bill passing. “I urge the General Assembly to revisit this issue and develop an approach that gives state agencies the flexibility to take appropriate action in response to sea level change within the next four years.”

The bill was sponsored by Republican Rep. Pat McElraft, who represents North Carolina’s 13th District, including coastal Carteret and Jones counties.

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McElraft is a former real-estate agent, and developers and the real-estate industry have contributed heavily to her campaigns. Among her top contributors have been the North Carolina Association of Realtors and the North Carolina Home Builders Association, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

McElraft first introduced the bill in the legislature in April 2011. The bill essentially banned the use of the 100-year sea-level-rise forecast by many of the agencies the state controls.

The bill initially aimed to “protect the property rights of homeowners” and had to do with how far back houses have to be built from the ocean.

McElraft and her supporters wanted to prevent the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources from denying developers or homeowners the ability to repair or rebuild valuable oceanfront homes because they were considered too close to the ocean by current standards.

The bill that passed ended up a “watered-down version of an initial proposal to put strict limits on the state’s use of climate-change data,” The N&O reported.

The law says the General Assembly does not intend to require the development of a policy on sea-level rise, which it called “sea-level change” or define rates of change “for regulatory purposes.”

“No rule, policy, or planning guideline that defines a rate of sea-level change for regulatory purposes shall be adopted,” the law says.

But the law also says “nothing in this section shall be construed to prohibit a county, municipality or other local government entity from defining rates” of sea-level rise.

Local government leaders are typically in charge of setting development policy.

New, limited study

The law instructed the coastal commission to issue a new report, with an outlook of 30 years instead of 100, that showed a lesser increase in sea levels over that time period.

The law required the commission that produced the original report to consider scientific literature debunking rising sea levels, even though the scientific community’s consensus at the time was that sea levels were rising on the East Coast.

The law also required the commission to include the economic cost to the state if it began to limit development based on sea-level rise.

North Carolina’s bill passed at the same time the U.S. Geological Survey projected that rates of sea-level rise from Cape Hatteras to Boston were increasing as much as four-times faster than the U.S. average. The USGS called the region a “hotspot.”

Since the time the bill passed, new and more accurate science based on advancing technology has shown that sea levels are rising at a rate of about an inch per year (5 inches from 2011-15) in some areas of the East Coast, from North Carolina to Florida, according to one study — faster than researchers expected, as previously reported by Abbie Bennett for The N&O.

And tidal flooding, or “sunny day flooding,” the inundation of low-lying coastal areas during high tide, is worsening. Storms such as Hurricane Florence could result in worse tidal flooding that could be catastrophic, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One study shows that sea-level rise flooding puts 2.5 million homes and businesses valued at $1 trillion at risk by the end of the century.

Another study using data from NOAA, the USGS, local governments and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which accounted for the Great Recession, showed that $7.4 billion in home values already has been lost across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia and Florida because of sea-level rise flooding from 2005 to 2017.

At the time the bill passed, McElraft said the commission would be required to “use some real science” in its new report and added that some scientists had debunked global warming.

“You can believe whatever you want about global warming, but when you go to make planning policies here for our residents and protecting their property values and insurance rates … it’s a very serious thing to us on the coast,” McElraft said in 2012, according to The N&O.

And while McElraft called her bill at the time a “breather” to allow the state to “step back” and continue to study sea-level rise over coming years, no substantive legislation on sea-level rise has been discussed in the legislature since.

Democrat Rep. Deborah Ross, who represented the Raleigh area at the time, said “ignorance is not bliss, it’s dangerous.

“By putting our heads in the sand, literally, for four years, we are not helping property owners. We are hurting them because we are not giving them information they may need to protect their property,” Ross said in 2012.

Satellites and tide gauges have been used to report sea levels at regular intervals in North Carolina for years.

That data shows that the sea level has been gradually and consistently rising along the North Carolina coast for the past 30 years or more since those gauges were installed, according to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.

Republican Rep. John Blust, who represents the Greensboro area, “appeared indignant about being lectured on climate change,” the N&O reported.

“If you all don’t agree with our point of view, somehow you’re bad, somehow you’re ignorant,” Blust said. “There is a constant almost intimidation factor going on.”

As sea levels continue to rise, the frequency, depth and extent of coastal flooding will continue to worsen, according to NOAA.

And that flooding will be even worse each time a tropical storm or hurricane approaches.

Some areas, including the Carolinas, could see worse flooding than others, and stand to lose much more.

Millions in property taxes that communities in North and South Carolina use to fund public safety, schools and more could be at risk if homes and businesses are constantly flooded, or even wiped off the map, by sea-level rise or worsening storm surge from tropical cyclones — not to mention the people who could lose their homes or investment properties.

“For some communities, the potential hit to the local tax base could be staggering,” Kristy Dahl, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists previously told The N&O. “Some smaller, more rural communities may see 30, 50, or even 70 percent of their property tax revenue at risk due to the number of chronically inundated homes. Tax base erosion could create particular challenges for communities already struggling with high poverty rates.”