Commentary

Another state blasts NC’s leaders — this time for denying sea-level rise

Another day — no, make that another hour — another embarrassment for North Carolina beyond its borders. This is the lead editorial in yesterday’s Virginian-Pilot:

N.C.’s blindfold on coastal planning

WALK FAR ENOUGH south in Virginia Beach, and a nice Carolinian will hand you a pair of blinders. They’re to keep you from daring to look more than 30 years in the future, where today’s bad planning decisions are likely to have devastating effects on coastal communities.

North of the border, Virginians have no such hobble. The result is a community — Hampton Roads — that has begun to recognize the devastation coming, thanks to rising seas, and started to build the public capacity vital to dealing with it.

The trend has been obvious in Norfolk for decades. The best science today estimates that seas will rise by at least four feet in the next century, though the further into the future scientists forecast, the less precise the estimates become.

In large part, today, that’s because sea level rise is accelerating, and because the impact of melting glaciers and tundra can only be estimated. A study this month on the Antarctic ice sheet indicated the potential sea rise here is likely to be closer to seven feet by 2100.

In Virginia, policymakers and scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Old Dominion University are using the best information they can to make the best decisions for the next century.

They’re figuring out how fast seas are rising, how quickly the rate of change is accelerating, and what that may mean for the future.

They are advising local policymakers faced with immediate decisions about planning and infrastructure, as well as sometimes skeptical state politicians who will set policies more widely.

Those same seas are also rising in North Carolina, and probably by similar amounts. But state officials there are specifically barred from making similar calculations. Or from fully understanding the science of the dangers.

That’s what happens when developers and demagogues decide climate policy.

The rationale for the irresponsibility in North Carolina was simple: If it were clear that seas were going to rise substantially in the next century, officials would have to start setting policies to reflect that. Development would be hindered.

In 2012, North Carolina’s newly muscular Republican lawmakers decided to prevent anyone from concluding that seas were going to rise substantially. Politicians specifically barred policymakers and scientists from forecasting sea level trends beyond 30 years. Or from even discussing the possibility that increasing carbon dioxide will warm the planet faster, resulting in more quickly rising seas.

The goal was to put the worst danger just outside the scope of the research. But even that wasn’t enough to obscure reality.

While somehow managing to write a 34-page report on sea level rise without once mentioning carbon dioxide, the latest report from the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission Science Panel estimates waters will rise by several inches in the next 30 years.

Given the low lands on the Outer Banks, and the propensity for severe storms, even several inches means more damage, more new inlets, more undermined roads, more eroded beaches.

Of course, there’s no chance that the seas will stop there, which the scientists in North Carolina know as surely as the scientists in Virginia.

At four feet, if that’s the target in 100 years, parts of the Outer Banks will cease to exist. Parts of Norfolk will flood even at low tides. This will be a different place north and south of the border.

Scientists know this. So do policymakers. The longer North Carolina takes to acknowledge it, the longer leaders in any state take to plan for it, the bigger the danger when the seas roll in.

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