Environment

Study: Not knowledge, not political party, but perceived threat of climate disasters convinces coastal officials to act

A map of the 20 coastal counties in North Carolina that could be affected by climate change.

North Carolina has 290 miles of direct shoreline and about 3,000 of inland waterfront property — all vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Here’s a troubling statistic: More than 20 percent of coastal government officials surveyed as part of a recent study said they were only slightly informed about climate change.

But even for those officials who’ve been keeping up with the greatest existential threat to the planet, just knowing about climate change is not enough to convince them to prepare for its impacts. The consequences of a warming planet — floods, hurricanes and weird, extreme weather — have to hit home, literally, for local governments to act. And by that time, it could be too late.

A recent study conducted by researchers from Appalachian State, NC State and the University of Saskatchewan found that coastal officials’ willingness to adapt to climate change isn’t based on ideology as much as the perceived threat of the disastrous effects on their vulnerable communities. The results were published in the peer-reviewed journal Ocean & Coastal Management.

Researchers surveyed 283 officials in the state’s 20 coastal counties to determine what factors would compel them to begin adapting their areas to climate change. Officials were presented with five risk scenarios, ranging from low to high, plus uncertain, to find out their willingness to adapt. The study found that officials were reluctant to act if the risk level was uncertain, but were willing to do so at the other risk levels.

When researchers factored in political party, most of the respondents said they were moderate. Faced with high or very high risk situations, moderates were more likely to commit resources to adaptation than either liberals or conservatives. When the risk was average or uncertain, conservatives were less likely than moderates to do so. At low risk, there was no difference in willingness among the ideologies.

This is important, the study notes, because “climate scientists suggest we should be more proactive given the looming nature of the threat.”

“Delaying decisions and adaptive planning until a bulk of the uncertainty surrounding climate impacts is removed not only means waiting for years or decades, but also squanders valuable time that could be better used now through public forums, regional meetings and information sessions to talk about community-wide priorities.”

This lollygagging could have dire economic, environmental and public health consequences for the coast. North Carolina has 290 miles of direct shoreline and 3,259 miles of inland waterfront property Even by conservative estimates, over the next 30 years, sea levels are projected to rise 6 inches along the northern NC coast, including the Outer Banks. Levels along the southern portion, near Wilmington, could rise at least 2 inches.

Within the coastal areas and lying below the 4-foot mean high tide line, the study said, there is an estimate $8 billion in property, such as schools, churches, homes, plus more than 100 EPA-listed hazardous waste sites.

Coastal officials reported that they need more scientific information and funding in order to adapt to the effects of climate change. Certainly, these adaptations will be expensive: flood management, planning and development (or prohibition of development), ensuring the safety drinking water supplies, upgrades to wastewater treatment systems, and protection of public health and ecosystems.

But there’s no excuse for officials’ lack of scientific knowledge. “While an adequate solution to [funding] isn’t likely to occur anytime soon due to budgetary restraints,” the study said, “… there is sufficient scientific evidence and information to begin taking adaptive action.” Even for the 20 percent of officials who have a lot to learn.

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