When North Carolina got bad news about what its coast could look like thanks to climate change, it chose to ignore it.
In 2012, the state now in the path of Hurricane Florence reacted to a prediction by its Coastal Resources Commission that sea levels could rise by 39in over the next century by passing a law that banned policies based on such forecasts.
The legislation drew ridicule, including a mocking segment by comedian Stephen Colbert, who said: “If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.”
North Carolina has a long, low-lying coastline and is considered one of the US areas most vulnerable to rising sea levels.
But dire predictions alarmed coastal developers and their allies, who said they did not believe the rise in sea level would be as bad as the worst models predicted and said such forecasts could unnecessarily hurt property values and drive up insurance costs.
As a result, the state’s official policy, rather than adapting to the worst potential effects of climate change, has been to assume it simply won’t be that bad. Instead of forecasts, it has mandated predictions based on historical data on sea level rise.
“The science panel used one model, the most extreme in the world,” Pat McElraft, the sponsor of the 2012 bill, said at the time, according to Reuters. “They need to use some science that we can all trust when we start making laws in North Carolina that affect property values on the coast.”
The legislation was passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature and allowed to become law by the then governor Bev Perdue, a Democrat who neither signed nor vetoed the bill.
The law required the coastal resources commission to put out another study in 2015, looking at expected sea level rise.
That report looked only 30 years ahead, rather than a century. It found that the rise in sea level during that time was likely to be roughly 6in to 8in, with higher increases possible in parts of the Outer Banks.
Some outside studies have offered more dire warnings. A report last year by the Union of Concerned Scientists said 13 North Carolina communities were likely to be “chronically inundated” with seawater by 2035.
The state’s stance has shifted under the current governor, Ray Cooper, a Democrat who took office last year.
Cooper announced last September that North Carolina would join the US Climate Alliance, a group of states that have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the goals of the Paris climate accord, even though Donald Trump pulled the US out of the agreement.
“We remain committed to reducing pollution and protecting our environment,” Cooper said. “So much of North Carolina’s economy relies on protecting our treasured natural resources.”
But Orrin Pilkey, a retired Duke University coastal geologist, wrote in a recent op-ed in the News & Observer that the state has still failed to take the steps that communities in Virginia and New Jersey have taken, to prepare for rising sea levels.
“Instead coastal development flourishes as more beachfront buildings, highways and bridges are built to ease access to our beautiful beaches,” he wrote. “Currently the unspoken plan is to wait until the situation is catastrophic and then respond.”