A rising tide of willful ignorance

By: - May 17, 2012 6:25 am

Legislative proposal would actually tell scientists which data they can and can’t consider on rising sea levels

Since as far back as the Scopes Trial (and probably even Galileo), the debate over science has been at the crux of numerous political and cultural conflicts between progressives and conservatives. For a variety of reasons – fear, greed, ignorance and religious orthodoxy to name just a few – many (but certainly not all) conservatives have frequently resisted science and the advances it has brought about in comprehending the universe and our place in it.

Whether it’s modern day religious fundamentalists who claim that dinosaurs and humans once roamed the earth together or conspiracy kooks who remain convinced that fluoridation and vaccines are monstrous Communist plots, head-in-the-sand beliefs and attitudes are hard to eradicate. Still, despite the frequency with which this phenomenon continues to rear its head, it’s always a bit of a shock for caring and thinking people to confront it face to face.

Sadly, North Carolina has recently become the home to yet another and example of this frustrating phenomenon and it is one that will make your head spin: It concerns the matter of the sea level rise that can be expected to occur in coming decades along the North Carolina coast and a disturbing effort by conservative ideologues to deny and hide the truth and forbid honest scientific inquiry.

Measuring our rising seas

As most people who pay attention to the news are aware, the earth’s atmosphere is gradually warming. As a result, sea levels are rising slowly but measurably as ocean ice melts and ocean water heats and expands. For a state like North Carolina, with a huge coast line and large sounds, this has obvious and serious implications.

Given this hard reality and the huge importance of coastal areas to the people who live there and the rest of North Carolina, smart people in and around state and local government made the common sense decision to try and get a handle on the facts surrounding the matter. To do this, the state Coastal Resources Commission empowered a panel of scientists to study the matter and make findings.

Two years ago, the Science Panel (which included an impressive combination of respected university professors, former and current members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other experts) presented a document entitled “North Carolina Sea-Level Rise Assessment Report.” The report looked at a wide variety of data and predictions and concluded that the best estimate of sea level rise between now and the end of the century is around one meter (39 inches). Here’s how the report puts it:

“The research concluded that a range of 0.80 meter to 2 meters is a more plausible range than the figures presented by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]. A 2-meter rise is considered very unlikely, but still possible, and could only occur with rapidly accelerated and very high rates of warming and ice sheet melting. 12

A one meter (39 inch rise) is considered likely in that it only requires that the linear relationship between temperature and sea level that was noted in the 20th century remains valid for the 21st century (Rahmstorf, 2007). This level of rise is consistently encapsulated within all of the projections reviewed, and is not located at the upper or lower extremes of the projections. Given the range of possible rise scenarios and their associated levels of plausibility, the Science Panel recommends that a rise of 1 meter (39 inches) be adopted as the amount of anticipated rise by 2100, for policy development and planning purposes.”

Now note that the panel wasn’t dogmatic, confrontational or ideological about its conclusions. The final words of the report put it this way:

“Predicting sea level rise in North Carolina for the next century is now and will be for an extended period, an inexact exact science. Immediate actions should be guided by what we know best, the historical sea level and storm records combined with reasonable safety factors. With improvements in data collection, climate science and modeling, sea level decadal to century-scale predictions should improve in the future. The Panel recommends a general reassessment of the planning predictions every five years or more frequently should any significant breakthroughs develop.”

In other words, the panel did what all good scientists do. It looked at the data and presented its best assessment with a caveat that constant reexamination of the facts and date would be important going forward. Its findings were also consistent with findings emerging around the world in a wide variety of scientific studies.

Running afoul of the global warming deniers

Though the Science Panel’s findings were possessed of obvious validity and critical importance to North Carolina’s future, they had one huge shortcoming: they didn’t comport with the desires and beliefs of global warming deniers on the ideological right – especially a group of such people who had in recent years taken control of a coastal economic development coalition known as NC-20.

NC-20 is a private nonprofit made up of county managers and volunteers that is dedicated to promoting economic development in 20 coastal counties. Unfortunately, NC-20 has also fallen under the sway of one of the nation’s most active global warning deniers – a real estate broker, long-retired aerospace industry employee from New York and self-appointed climate expert who owns property along the coast named John Droz. Droz, who is listed on the NC-20 website as the group’s “Science Advisor,” recently drew international attention for his role in a secret, corporate-funded “subversion” effort to foment opposition to wind energy. NC-20 contends that there is no acceleration whatsoever underway in sea-level rise.

At Droz’ urging, NC-20 went to war against the Science Panel’s findings and recommendations. According to the group’s own website, the group launched a military-like lobbying effort against the report and prevailed upon the Coastal Resources Commission to have the report’s recommendation effectively quashed.

Legislating against science

Unfortunately, merely blocking the Science Panel’s report wasn’t enough for NC-20. With the return of the Republican-controlled General Assembly for the 2012 legislative session, NC-20 is attempting to take the offensive and affirmatively dictate to the state exactly which science data it may consider in making sea-level rise predictions – namely the data approved by people like John Droz.

In recent days, General Assembly staff was directed by conservative lawmakers to develop a bill that would actually tell the Science Panel how to do its job. As summarized by journalist Kirk Ross in a recent article for the online newsletter of the N.C. Coastal Federation:

“The proposed bill would limit forecasts for future sea-level rise to what the ocean along the N.C. coast did last century. Using that standard, the state would plan for rise of about 12 inches by 2100.

Determining the rate would fall to the N.C. Division of Coastal Management. Language in the bill says the rates ‘shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900’ and that ‘(R)ates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.’”

You got that? An economic development group with an obvious self-interest in assuring that large tracts of land remain available for development and are not included by planners in potential flood areas (a group that relies on the “expertise” of one of the nation’s most notorious global warming deniers), is advancing a bill to tell a group of respected, credentialed scientists and engineers the data that they’re allowed to examine and use in planning for one of the most important environmental issues to ever confront our state! It’s simply amazing.

Going forward

Earlier this week, the anti-science directive – which was prepared as an amendment to an unrelated measure that’s already passed the House and that resides in the Senate Agriculture, Environment and Natural Resources Committee – was scheduled to be heard today, Thursday May 17. Subsequently, the meeting was cancelled and, presumably, rescheduled for next week.

In the days to come it will be morbidly fascinating to see if the anti-science forces are able to prevail. If they do, we can rest assured that somewhere the persecutors of John Scopes and Galileo Galilei will be smiling.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.