Has the law caught up with science in North Carolina?
- 25 Jun 2012, 17:00
- Carbon Brief staff
A new bill that would prevent planning authorities from
being guided by scientific predictions about sea level was passed
in North Carolina last week. But now it appears the bill may have
been defanged, just as new research is published that says the
state and others on the East Coast are in a sea level rise
So what's going on? Here, we summarise the latest somewhat
ridiculous tussle between US climate scientists and legislators
over scientific research.
There was outcry over the
decision by state legislators to approve a bill
'all but outlaw' projections of sea level
rise made by the state's scientific commission, in favour of a
lower estimate put forward by a group representing local
The bill has been seen as an attack on
scientifically-informed policy making, and following some rather
scathing coverage of the decision, last Thursday a North Carolina
legislative committee met to reconsider, according to the
There was a degree of rollback: Committee chair Pat
McElfraft told HuffPo that amendments to the contentious bill will
include requiring more sea level studies by the Coastal Resources
Commission, which gives planning permission to new projects, over
the next three to four years.
There will also be no law dictating that calculations may
only be based on historical trends, as was suggested in the
original bill - which would have put
sea level rise by 2100 at just 20 centimetres.
However, regulators will still not be able to use work by a
group of scientists, the Science
Panel on Coastal Hazards, which estimated future
sea level rise to accelerate to around one metre by 2100,
threatening more than 2,000 square miles of coastal
Representative Ruth Samuelson told the Huffington
"Before we set coastal policy for 100
years we need to make sure we're looking at it carefully."
So although a
historically-based projection - originally put forward by
NC-20, a group representing coastal development companies and other
businesses in response to the scientists' submission - won't be
enshrined in law, North Carolina is still not acknowledging studies
that project higher levels of sea level rise.
It puts the Coastal Resources Commission in a strange
position - how is it going to assess planning applications over the
next few years?
Meanwhile, new research has been published that supports the
Science Panel's 2011 suggestion that sea level rise is
The US Geological Survey released a
study today concluding that the east coast
of the US - from Massachusetts to North Carolina - is a sea level
rise "hotspot". Sea levels are rising at a rate three to four times
faster than the projected global average in this area, it says, in
part due to circulation patterns in the ocean and atmosphere which
distribute water unevenly.
The study supports data from climate models suggesting that
not only is sea level rise likely to accelerate in the future, it
is already doing so now.
Difference in rate of sea level rise relative to global
Nature Climate Change
We asked Dr Abby Sallenger at the US Geological Survey at St
Petersburg, Florida what this could mean for North Carolina. She
said North Carolina is at the southern edge of the hotspot, adding
that "the data at present show accelerations of sea level rise in
the northern half of the state."
Sallenger told us, however, that other processes could alter
the rate of sea level rise in the future. So we can't necessarily
say that this acceleration will continue.
Sea level rise up to two degrees celsius
Meanwhile, another paper from the Potsdam Institute for
Climate Impact Research says that even if humans manage to keep
temperature rise to within less than 2 degrees celsius - the amount
of warming suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change to be the
upper limit for harmful climate change -
global average sea level
may still rise by between 75 and 80 centimetres by
The research looked at observed sea level rise over the past
1,000 years as well as scenarios for future greenhouse gas
emissions, and added estimates of the effects of melting ice on sea
level rise to existing IPCC projections.
According to Michiel Schaeffer, the lead author of the
study, since oceans and ice masses respond to temperature increases
much more slowly than the atmosphere does, "emissions today will
determine sea level rise for centuries to come". The paper argues
that halting sea level rise over the next few centuries won't be
possible without extensive geoengineering efforts to remove carbon
dioxide from the atmosphere.
Co-author Stefan Rahmstorf says the potential impacts of
such rises could significantly increase the frequency of severe
flooding in areas such as New York, and significantly affect
low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the small island
What does this mean for North Carolina?
These recent studies broadly agree with work done by another
scientist, Ben Horton, whose studies of sediment cores in North
Carolina show a "
consistent link between sea surface
temperatures and changes in sea level for the past
So assuming that the North Carolina government decides to
take scientists' future sea level predictions into account, it will
presumably be planning for at least a one metre rise in sea level
However, with the legal status of the predictions in limbo
for at least three years, it's likely that construction projects
along the coast will be given the go-ahead before another
scientific review happens. After a two-year legislative process,
North Carolina has basically managed to ignore any sort of
prediction of future sea level rise, scientific or not. Inertia can
be hard work.