Why you should care
Because in the end, politicized science benefits no one.
James Hoggard does not much care whether increased carbon-dioxide output from humans is causing the globe to get warmer and the seas to rise. What he knows is that his riverside town of 3,600 in eastern North Carolina is in danger of being wiped off the map. There have been four major floods in tiny Windsor since 1999 — including two this past fall — where none had been recorded before. Hoggard just gutted the sodden first floor of his downtown office building. He doubts he could ever sell it now. As town leaders await a study by local universities about diverting future floods, there’s “loose talk,” Hoggard says, about relocating the town to higher ground. “No matter what the cause of it is,” he says, “we want to do what we can to survive.”
Republican legislators in North Carolina made national headlines — and inspired a late-night roasting from Stephen Colbert — for passing a law in 2012 that essentially disregarded a state commission study that predicted more than 3 feet of sea-level rise by 2100. The Tar Heel State became known for “outlawing” climate change. While the controversy continues to simmer at a low boil, the state is now seeking a new middle ground — by letting local communities largely decide for themselves how to adjust to the coming rising waves. Some are pushing new construction away from the sea. The Outer Banks, a group of rapidly receding barrier islands, continue to commit millions of dollars to controversial beach renourishment — a Sisyphean task — to cling to the sandy tourist draw.
I go bankrupt if I don’t listen to science.
Frank Gorham, chairman, N.C. Coastal Resources Commission
Despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists that the globe is warming and humans are causing it, politicians often try to dodge scientific conclusions that carry economic consequences. Texas environmental officials under Republican then-governor Rick Perry sparred publicly with a scientist about scrubbing references of climate change from a report on Galveston Bay. An investigation by the nonprofit Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found that under Republican Gov. Rick Scott, Florida banned state employees from using the words “climate change” or “global warming” in official communications. (Scott’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
No rhetoric, or lack thereof, has mollified the seas. Elevated sea levels already are evident across the eastern part of North Carolina, from prosperous coastal towns to the Inner Banks — rural counties snaked with inlets where old docks and livestock fences are submerged and agricultural fields have become bogs. They are the warning signs of a nationwide crisis for coastal real estate. Property database company Zillow conducted an analysis showing that $882 billion worth of property nationwide will be at least partially submerged by the year 2100 if the seas rise 6 feet — in part because Antarctica is melting faster than previously thought.
Following the state’s national skewering, the previously obscure body regulating coastal development, the Coastal Resources Commission, sought a middle ground. After the legislature’s four-year moratorium expired, the CRC’s science panel finalized a fresh report that was serious and peer-reviewed but only looked 30 years down the road instead of the original 90. The forecast is still alarming: more flooding and a sea-level rise of 1.9 to 10.6 inches, depending on location and global greenhouse gas emissions. Coastal geologist Stanley Riggs of East Carolina University abruptly resigned from what he termed the “dysfunctional” panel, saying the state had politicized the science by limiting its scope.
An appointee of the former Republican governor, CRC chairman Frank Gorham has come to symbolize the problem in the mind of environmentalists. Gorham is an oil and gas man and a coastal property developer, the very interests that have a financial stake in squelching new restrictions on coastal development or alarm over fossil fuels. But Gorham tells OZY it’s not in his interest to ignore reality: “I go bankrupt if I don’t listen to science.” He sidestepped calls to put climate-change deniers on the science panel and instead appointed respected scientists. But in backing the 30-year forecast, Gorham also listened to engineers, bankers and local government officials who were more inclined to plan for a tangible time frame — the length of a typical mortgage — than the next century.
Gorham does not deny the warming of the planet, but he’s skeptical of climate scientists’ “hockey stick” graph of accelerating temperatures. The 30-year report will be updated every five years, and Gorham says if the tide gauges start rising even faster, the recommendations will shift accordingly. But there’s still a lack of urgency among those most under threat. Christine Avenarius, an anthropology professor at East Carolina University, has conducted a project to interview lowland residents. Those away from the coastline recognize the changes, but there is little will for collective action, such as levying local taxes to build better flood-control systems. “You see the emergency-room behavior, just like we do with health care,” Avenarius says. “If the going really gets super rough, FEMA is going to bail you out if you’re lucky. And if not, everybody is just against you.”
Riggs, the geologist, ditched state service — “I’m pushing 80, and I don’t need that BS anymore” — to form a nonprofit to educate low-lying residents and develop solutions. Living on a farm in the countryside, driving past an increasing number of houses perched on stilts, he laments that North Carolina was once a national leader in measuring and adapting to climate change. Now, “we get greedy” to develop land that shouldn’t be developed, with roads destined to be washed away. The water is coming, like it or not. Oftentimes, he says, there’s only one solution: “You pick up your tent and move it.”
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