Climate Politics: North Carolina House Whiffs on Controversial Sea-Level Bill

North Carolina's now infamous bill, House Bill 819 -- designed to outlaw accelerated rates of sea-level rise in North Carolina has hit a snag... at least for now.
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A victory for the enviros? Not exactly.

North Carolina's now infamous bill -- House Bill 819 [pdf] -- designed to outlaw accelerated rates of sea-level rise in North Carolina has hit a snag... at least for now.

The Birth of the Bill

It all started innocuously enough. A few years ago, the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission -- which "designates areas of environmental concern, adopts rules and policies for coastal development within those areas, and certifies local land-use plans" -- asked its science panel for guidance on sea-level rise. North Carolina has lots of low-lying land along its coast that could be threatened by rising seas. In 2010 the panel issued a report [pdf] that not only examined the science of sea-level rise on North Carolina's coast but also recommended that "for policy development and planning purposes" the state adopt "a rise of 1 meter (39 inches)... as the amount of anticipated rise by 2100." A recommendation pretty much in line with other estimates.

Then the proverbial stuff began to hit the fan. A group called NC-20, reportedly with close connections to North Carolina's land-development community, began a campaign to stop any policy that contemplated such a large rise in sea levels. It argued that plans for the future should be based solely on historical rates of sea-level rise, despite the fact that, with rising temperatures and melting ice sheets and glaciers, it's pretty clear that sea-level rise will accelerate this century. Instead of the 39 inches recommended by the science panel, the historical method proposed by NC-20 would project a sea-level rise of only eight inches.

The NC-20 campaign succeeded. The commission is now developing a planning document based on its 2010 report but without any mention of accelerating sea-level rise. But that success apparently wasn't enough. The next step was to get the North Carolina Legislature onboard. That happened when the State Senate co-opted the original, straightforward House bill [pdf], which dealt with setbacks for development, and rewrote it into a vehicle that would forbid state agencies from using anything but historical non-accelerating rates -- in other words, the new bill incorporated a method for factoring in sea-level rise not recommended by the scientists but proposed by NC-20. (More on the bill and its history here and here.)

The State Senate Embraces the Bill, Keeping Science at Arm's Length

The newly minted HB819 lit up the blogosphere (see here, here and here) and made headlines from Los Angeles to London, creating waves and shining a not-so-flattering light on my home state of North Carolina. The ultimate being the "Sink or Swim" spoof by neighboring South Carolina-native Steven Colbert. Though I kinda like the one-liner by the Nicholas School's Orrin Pilkey, too, as cited in the Los Angeles Times: "making projections based only on past sea level changes is like limiting hurricane warnings to the precise spots where hurricanes have struck."

(While you might say that North Carolina has become a laughing stock, I suppose one could call it relative -- at least our politicians can still use terms like "climate change" and "sea-level rise," unlike those muzzled pols to the north in Virginia.)

At any rate, on June 7, the new-and-not-so-improved bill easily passed out of the North Carolina Senate Committee on Agriculture, Environment, and Natural Resources. Five days later, it passed the full Senate by a vote of 35 to 12.

The General Assembly Messes With the Bill

Poised for a House vote on June 19, HB819 looked like it could easily sail through passage.

But something happened along the way to stop its momentum. Perhaps it had to do with all the laughter and derision directed at it and its sponsors. Or maybe House members were unhappy that their setback-focused, three-paragraph, one-pager [pdf] had been transmogrified into a forget-the-science three-pager [pdf].

In any event, last week the House voted against the Senate version,114 to 0.

Enviros Snookered Again?

Incredible! A victory for the environment, for science. And a stunning defeat for coastal developers wanting to profit by building on land destined to be washed away. Right? Not quite. Those pesky North Carolina legislators are a lot smarter than some people might think. My bet is that we're looking at a classic case of smoke and mirrors.

How so? The bill, like some sort of legislative zombie (something Americans are gobbling up these days), is probably not dead yet, having been sent back to committee for revisions. A new version of the bill could appear in the General Assembly as soon as this week or next session. Last week CBS reported that the revised bill:

"would require more sea level studies by the Coastal Resources Commission.... The state in the meantime would not be allowed to use the state-sponsored scientific suggestions that North Carolina prepare for three-foot sea level rise by 2100. There would also be no law that calculations used would have to be based solely on historic trends."

In other words coastal developers might still prevail. As long as the state's Coastal Resources Commission is studying the problem and forbidden to use the scientifically recommended three-foot number, coastal developers can continue to develop the coast as if climate change does not exist.

Talk about having your cake and eating it too. So for now it's hurry up and wait for the bill's next iteration. Perhaps this downtime will allow the PR nightmare to diminish -- the bad press will wash away like so many pebbles on a beach. Meanwhile, the deep-pocketed coastal development community can sit back and wait it out for a second try, even as the science grows stronger on rates of accelerated sea-level rise (see two new papers here and here). If you're a North Carolinian, I guess you gotta be pretty proud of our folks in Raleigh.

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