In North Carolina and Virginia, Business and Tea-Party Politics Rise Over Sea Levels

If you were wondering what the next target of conservative groups and the tea party after they’ll get over with agenda 21, we have the answer for you: sea level rise. In North Carolina the state Senate approved legislation last week that would limit how the state can plan for projected sea-level rise, and in Virginia state lawmakers agreed to commission a study on the phenomenon as long as terms like “sea level rise” and “climate change” were removed. As you can see, another relatively straightforward indication of global warming is slowly but surely transforming into a questionable, not to say inappropriate term.

Politicians messing up with research and statistical data might look like a bad idea, but on the other hand, as Steven Colbert noted, commenting about North Carolina story, this is actually a brilliant idea: “If your science gives you a result that you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved.” It can actually be a great method to solve most problems in life. The only drawback is that it works well only in the short term. In the long term (if there’s any) it usually leaves you only with unpleasant options, like sink or swim as Colbert suggested in this particular case.

Let’s start with Virginia, where the legislature commissioned a study to determine the impacts of climate change on the state’s shores, given that Virginia is highly vulnerable to flooding. The National Memo reported that Republicans in the state legislature agreed to that, but as long as words like “sea level rise” and “climate change” were left out of the proposal.

Republican State Delegate Chris Stolle, who steered the legislation, said according to the Virginian Plot that “sea level rise” is a “left-wing term” that conjures up animosities on the right. So why bring it into the equation? “What people care about is the floodwater coming through their door. Let’s focus on that. Let’s study that. So that’s what I wanted us to call it,” he added. Democrats, wanting the study approved, agreed on substituting it to a more politically neutral phrase, “recurrent flooding,” and the legislation was approved and signed by the governor.

Do semantics matter or it’s not really that important if we call it ‘sea level rise’, ‘recurrent flooding’, or maybe just ‘it’, as long as studies are been made and actions are been taken? I believe semantics do matter because semantics define perception and perception shapes policy and action. Softer definitions can easily get people to mistakenly identify black flags as white flags, and this is a luxury that Virginia, where scientists say the state’s sea level will rise by about 2 feet over the next century, cannot afford. According to NOAA, 82 percent of the Virginia coastline considered at high or very high risk to sea level rise, not to mention places like the city of Norfolk, which is especially vulnerable to rising sea waters and subsidence, given its geography and marshy footprint. Yet, apparently it’s not enough for some Virginia lawmakers to get over their issues with climate change and raise a black flag, which in itself might be defined one day as a left wing term.

As shocking as it might sound, the Virginia lawmakers are pretty progressive compared to their colleagues in North Carolina. While in Virginia they only tell the researchers what language to use, at least they don’t tell them what data sets to use. In North Carolina, on the other hand, it’s a different story.

The state Senate in North Carolina approved by a 34-to-11 vote last week a bill prescribing how the state can forecast future sea level rise for planning purposes. The bill, according to NCCapitol bans predictions of sea level rise “unless such rates are from statistically significant, peer-reviewed data and are consistent with historic trends.” This rule essentially bans any new projections based on climate change models, as they would be inconsistent with historic trends.

In other words, using historic trends is allowed, scientific modeling is not. What’s the difference? 21 inches. Yep, according to a state-commissioned study on sea level rise conducted before the bill was approved the expected rise would be 39 inches on the coast by 2100. The expected revised forecast, in accordance with the new guidelines, is around an 8-inch rise by 2100. This makes a big difference to coastal developers, who pushed for the bill through a non-profit advocacy group called NC-20, which brought up fears that planning and retrofitting buildings and roads with a 39-inch rise in mind would be a tremendous waste of money, not to mention that “potential investment and construction will be severely impacted.”

“The level of irresponsibility of NC-20 is really fantastic,” geologist Orrin Pilkey of Duke University told ScienceInsider. “What this legislation does is prevent the state of informing people of the hazards that they are facing.” He’s probably right, but when money meets politics, long-term hazards are set aside. But after all, aren’t hazards themselves just a left-wing concept pushed by the (left-wing) media?

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[Image credit: Nick Moys, Flickr Creative Commons]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Department of Business Administration, CUNY and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.