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Waves crash underneath the Oceana Pier

Waves crash underneath the Oceana Pier as the outer bands of Hurricane Florence begin to affect the coast on Sept. 13, 2018 in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As Florence Threatens 'Catastrophic' Destruction, A Reminder That North Carolina Passed Law Mandating Climate Warnings Be Ignored

State legislators passed an anti-science law after a 2010 report warned global warming would cause devastating sea-level rise. Now, as a hurricane makes landfall, local experts demand policy change and urgent action

Jessica Corbett

The outer bands of Hurricane Florence made landfall on the coast of North Carolina on Thursday, bringing with it warnings of "catastrophic" floods and renewed scrutiny of legislation that actually bars state agencies from crafting policies based on climate science models that warn of devastating sea-level rise due to human-caused global warming.

North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature enacted House Bill 819 (pdf)—which became law without any action by then-Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat—in 2012, after the state's Coastal Resource Commission published a 2010 report (pdf) predicting that seawater could rise 39 inches along the coast by 2100, and lawmakers, coastal landowners, and members of the real-estate industry responded with alarm over pricey waterfront property that faces billions of dollars in damage.

The law required state and local agencies to rely on historical linear models—rather than findings that sea-level rise is accelerating because of human activity that produces planet-warming emissions—and limited the scope of the commission's research to prevent long-term projections. Even before it took effect, the measure was intensely ridiculed. Comedian Stephen Colbert sarcastically remarked: "If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved."

"This bill is basically like saying to your doctor, 'Don't do any tests on me, and if you do any tests and find something wrong, don't tell me for four years,'" Democratic state Rep. Deborah Ross told Reuters. "By putting our heads in the sand literally, we are not helping property owners. We are hurting them. We are not giving them information they might need to protect their property. Ignorance is not bliss. It's dangerous."

Now, even though Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has joined the U.S. Climate Alliance—a coalition of states that committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions after President Donald Trump ditched the Paris agreement last year—Florence is forecast to crawl across the Southeast throughout the weekend amid warnings from climate scientists that global warming is making extreme weather events including hurricanes more common and intense, and the 2012 law is eliciting a fresh dose of criticism.

"We were ready to step up to the plate and take a hard look at this long-term problem," Stanley Riggs, a retired professor at East Carolina University who helped produce the 2010 report, told the New York Times this week. "And we blew it."

"The response of North Carolina's politicians...to this existential threat has been to attack the science, to allow the pace of coastal development on the Outer Banks and other pricey beachfronts to accelerate, and to invest money in quick fixes like sea walls that—in the opinion of scientists like Riggs—only make problems like coastal erosion worse," Will Bunch wrote for Philly.com.

"The time has come to recognize that we cannot hold the shoreline still," retired Duke University coastal geologist Orrin H. Pilkey, who has written several books about the impact of sea-level rise, argued in The News & Observer last week. "We must take the long view and respond now to the rising sea in a planned fashion."

Pointing to "meaningful actions" taken by officials from Norfolk and Hampton, Virginia to Charleston, South Carolina and New Jersey, Pilkey proposed barring future beachfront development, raising existing buildings, demolishing or relocating those that face imminent threats, prohibiting the rebuilding of structures destroyed by storms, and preparing for "an organized retreat from the rising sea."

His proposals preceded a storm that is expected to bring severe damage to the state's coast. While Florence was downgraded from a Category 4 to 2 on Wednesday due to its declining wind speed, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) emphasized on Twitter Thursday morning that "life-threatening storm surge flooding, catastrophic flash flooding, and prolonged significant river flooding are still expected."

"Put simply, Florence is a 'Category 5 flood threat,'" The Weather Channel concluded.

With forecasters worried about a repeat of Hurricane Harvey, which inundated Houston with floodwater last year, NHC Director Ken Graham explained to the Associated Press: "It truly is really about the whole size of this storm... The larger and the slower the storm is, the greater the threat and the impact—and we have that."

Federal officials are posting updates on the storm on social media and at hurricanes.gov.


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