The coastal and marine geologist once felt his state valued his work.
North Carolina was a leader in coastal management, said Stanley Riggs, a distinguished professor of geology at East Carolina University. It heeded the advice of a “tremendous team of scientists” studying the origins and evolution of the Eastern Seaboard, of which the Tar Heel State has a particularly broad swath. As a result, lawmakers adopted policies in the 1970s and 1980s to safeguard the natural environment and protect human lives, he said. No hardening of the shoreline. Setbacks from the coast. Guidelines about inlets. It seemed, he said, that the state had been able to marry science and economics.
But now, his pride in his state has been replaced by fear and dismay, as Hurricane Florence, recently downgraded to a Category 1 storm, bears down on the southeastern United States, bringing warnings of “life-threatening” storm surge and rainfall, according to the National Hurricane Center.
The state’s coastal plain, Riggs said, would not be in such grave danger if lawmakers had not rejected a study prepared by a panel on which he served that predicted the sea level would rise 39 inches by 2100 because of climate change. The projection should guide “policy development and planning purposes,” advised the 2010 report, whose authors were mainly scientists and engineers at the state’s leading research universities, as well as state and federal regulators.
The historical record, wrote the experts, offered “undisputable evidence that sea level has been steadily rising in North Carolina,” while “multiple indicators” suggest that the rate would accelerate because the “global climate is warming.”
The 2010 election brought a shift in power in Raleigh, however, as both chambers of the General Assembly changed hands from the Democrats to the Republicans. The majority began rolling back environmental regulations and clearing the way for more coastal development.
By 2012, the panel’s report had been caught in the crosshairs. Lawmakers barred state agencies from basing policy on the prediction of intensifying sea-level rise, at least until 2016, essentially shelving the scientific recommendations.
“The science panel used one model, the most extreme in the world,” said Republican state Rep. Pat McElraft, the bill’s House sponsor, whose district includes coastal counties, according to a 2012 Reuters article. “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 measure drew national attention, including ridicule from some observers, as The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery reported. Stephen Colbert, in a segment on “The Colbert Report,” observed that the “bold action on climate change” gave the state two options: “Sink or swim.”
“If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved,” Colbert said.
But the change, of course, is no laughing matter, said Riggs, who was watching weather reports this week from his home in Greenville, N.C., an inland college town still vulnerable to flash flooding.
“We’ve seen a catastrophic destruction of all the rules and regulations that this state was known for,” he said. “And now we’re sitting out there with this incredible economic presence, an entire coast barrier island system dependent on engineered structures. Beaches are collapsing and have to be re-nourished over and over again with new sand. All that sand will be gone after today or tomorrow. We’ll have to do it all over again.”
He blamed “greed” and a mentality that sees “no limits to growth.”
“The state is now blowing the whistle, but it has not protected human life,” Riggs said. “We shouldn’t have allowed those structures to be built.”
NC-20, a coastal economic development organization that lobbied the General Assembly to jettison the scientific report, celebrated the outcome in its July 2012 newsletter.
“Despite all odds, the push by NC-20 to demand responsible science concerning sea level rise succeeded,” the group noted. It accused environmental groups of having “wanted a huge rise in sea level.”
Riggs attributed the report’s defeat to a power imbalance between the Outer Banks, a destination for well-to-do vacationers, and the coastal lowlands, a hardscrabble expanse hit by the decline of once-prosperous tobacco, textile and furniture industries.
“The have-nots — they want the help,” said Riggs, explaining that he has been working with local communities ever since the state stopped cooperating. “I’ve quit all the stuff in Raleigh. I can’t make an impact up there. My life’s too short to waste any more of it fighting those battles. We can still on a smaller scale work together.”
In one case, he helped build a dike around the town of Swan Quarter (population 324), which sits on an inlet that has already seen destructive rain and wind, according to local media reports.
“They’re at sea level,” Riggs said. “The dike is very temporary for them.”
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