Eight years ago, a team of top scientists and engineers warned North Carolina’s government that the state faced a potentially cataclysmic rise in sea levels that would bury billions of dollars in real estate under a meter of water.
Armed with this information, the Republicans in charge chose to bury their heads in sand instead.
Nearly a decade later, as Hurricane Florence makes landfall on the state’s Atlantic coast, the decision by North Carolina leaders to ignore that sea-level assessment are being criticized as a short-sighted bid to appease developers—which may leave more than 300 miles of coastline exposed to the ravages of climate change.
Numerous state governments—to say nothing of the current administration—have scoffed at the notion of an anthropogenic factor in sea level rise and climate change. In neighboring South Carolina, where the state’s northeastern coast, including Myrtle Beach, is under a flash flood watch in anticipation of Florence dropping up to 25 inches of rain on the spring break resort town, Gov. Henry McMaster has supported President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the landmark Paris Climate Accord last summer. McMaster joined both the state’s senators in dismissing concerns that increasingly violent hurricanes might result from warming ocean temperatures, and that rising sea levels might encroach on the state’s coastline.
“I’m with Trump,” McMaster said at the time. “We’ll be fine. We’re getting better and better.”
But even by the standards of modern climate-change denialism, North Carolina’s rejection of climate science is mayor-from-Jaws-level exceptional.
In 2010, more than a dozen engineers and geoscientists working with the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s panel on coastal hazards released the North Carolina Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report, which was published with the goal of providing state planners and policymakers with a scientific assessment of the amount of sea-level rise likely to occur by the end of the century.
The results were dire. The scientists projected that climate change would lead to a likely sea-level rise of one meter, or 39 inches, by the year 2100, with the potential for sea-level rise of as much as 55 inches if the most extreme model proved accurate.
The study, the report’s authors wrote, was based on “undisputable [sic] evidence that sea level has been steadily rising in North Carolina,” as well as multiple indicators suggesting that the global climate is warming. In dry science-speak, the panel concluded, “an acceleration in the rate of [sea-level rise] is likely.”
Addressing the reality of rising sea levels would require billions in infrastructure investment, from elevating roads and building sea walls around vital power and waste-treatment facilities to creating buffers intended to counter increasingly violent storm surges—like those barrelling towards North Carolina’s coast ahead of Hurricane Florence. It would also mean potentially abandoning highly valuable undeveloped coastline to the sea, an outcome that North Carolina real estate developers would not take sitting down.
Two years later, the state’s legislature passed H.B. 819, which effectively forbade the state from estimating future sea-level rise unless the rates were “consistent with historic trends,” ignoring the scientific consensus that sea-level rise is accelerating. Using exclusively historic models to predict future sea-level rise reduced that one-meter estimate to a mere eight inches of sea-level rise.
The bill, which became law without the governor’s signature, was widely mocked, including by South Carolina native son Stephen Colbert, who used the same principle of extrapolation to prove that he would never die. (Insurance actuaries be damned.) But the move was lauded at the time by NC-20, a group representing business interests in 20 coastal counties, as putting to an end “the unscientific speculation that had infected the whole [sea-level rise] process.”
The lead coastal scientist eventually quit the state panel in protest, declaring that “the once highly respected and effective science panel has been subtly defrocked and is now an ineffective body.”
In the years since, North Carolina’s “sea no evil” policy has not stopped rising sea levels and climate change from negatively affecting its coastline.
Tidal flooding, also known as “sunny day flooding,” has become a major nuisance on the coast of the Carolinas. Fifty years ago, Charleston, South Carolina, saw four days of tidal flooding on average. In 2016, that number had risen to 50 days. In the same year, Wilmington, North Carolina, faced 84 days of high-tide flooding, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 2017-2018 flooding will be 25 percent higher than average—and that’s before Florence came calling.
Hurricane Florence itself represents one facet of the increasing calamity, according to researchers at Stony Brook University, who estimate that rainfall from the storm “will be significantly increased by over 50% in the heaviest precipitating parts of the storm” due to climate change, and “that the storm is approximately 80 kilometers in diameter larger at landfall because of the human interference in the climate system.”
Scientists estimate—at their legal peril, in North Carolina—that the problems will keep getting worse. A report conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists last year found that as many as 20 communities in North Carolina could be completely lost to sea-level rise in the next 15 years.
“These communities can cope with the water at first,” said Erika Spanger-Siegfried, a senior climate analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists and lead author of the report. “But there comes a threshold of sea-level rise-induced flooding that makes normal routines impossible and drives hard choices.”
For coastal Carolinians trying to decide whether they can safely wait out the storm, however, the choice may have already been made for them.