A debate in North Carolina over how best to plan for accelerating sea level rise could be instructive for those facing the same issue elsewhere (yes, that means us, here on Cape Cod). The Virginian-Pilot reports that state officials have recommended that local governments should plan – and regulate – for 39 inches of sea level rise by 2100. A group of coastal counties and businesses, known as NC-20, has sprung up to oppose the recommendation.
“This is a ‘what if,’ ” said Willo Kelly, president of NC-20. “We can understand seven inches in 100 years but not 39 inches. If this is reality, then why aren’t they building a sea wall along the entire coast of the United States?”
I’ll be honest. When I first read that quote, I scoffed. The whole wall-us-in idea is one I’ve toyed with in previous posts, but only as a means of provoking conversation about this crucial issue. The reasons not to build a sea wall around the entire U.S. – or even the Cape – seem too numerous and obvious to even begin listing. Cost, feasibility, environmental impacts …
To be fair, that’s not NC-20′s whole argument:
The predictions are exaggerated, said Dave Burton, a computer science professional who analyzes climate data and has compiled reports for NC-20.
“The rate of sea-level rise is not one speck higher than it was 80 years ago,” Burton said.
This was not a viewpoint that I had ever encountered in the scientific literature or my conversations with researchers, so I did some quick digging. I have been unable to find any peer-reviewed publication about sea level rise by David Burton (incidentally, NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt raised the same issue), and his analytical methods got severely critiqued by experts in a comment thread on RealClimate last fall.
But back to that astounding quote from Willo Kelly. As I continued reading the article, something from a recent conversation with MassINC‘s research director Ben Forman bubbled up to the surface. Forman says that in the public opinion research they’ve conducted, it’s not uncommon to come across the attitude “Nobody has a clear solution, so it must not be that much of a problem.” That can seem a bit backward at first glance. But, to paraphrase, Forman explains the logic this way: If sea level rise (to pick an example) were a truly pressing problem, a lot of smart people would have spent a lot of time/effort thinking about what to do about it and public officials would be putting forth concrete proposals. That’s what we see with regard to the economy, health care, and any number of other top-tier political debates. Democrats and Republicans may not agree on the correct course of action, but they do agree we have a problem that needs to be addressed and so they’ve come up with ideas for how to do that.
That kind of solidarity is lacking when it comes to sea level rise or any other aspect of climate change. The opposition to mainstream climate science voiced by an increasing number of Republican politicians is, of course, a big part of this. But Forman says that even within Governor Deval Patrick’s Democrat, climate-forward administration here in Massachusetts, there’s a lot of uncertainty, disagreement … dare I say dithering? In the past three years, Massachusetts has passed the Green Communities Act and the Global Warming Solutions Act, drafted a Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020, and commissioned a major report on climate change adaptation efforts in the state. And yet, Forman says that an ongoing assessment of the effectiveness of these legislative efforts suggests that most of what has happened to date has amounted to grabbing the low-hanging fruit. When it comes to the big, hard decisions, nobody is quite sure what to do.
Take sea level rise. Many scientists say there are basically three options:
- Armor the coast: Sea walls protect coastal properties, but are expensive and take a heavy toll on beaches and marshes.
- Reinforce beaches: Adding sand and planting dune grasses is a temporary and expensive way to maintain beaches and dunes that naturally protect what’s behind them.
- Retreat: Abandoning or moving coastal development allows coastlines to move naturally, but is economically and emotionally fraught.
But the EPA recently released a new report dismissing the first two options as too costly – both in financial and ecological terms – and only temporary measures. Instead, the report provides recommendations for implementing a gradual, organized retreat from the coast – at least the current coastline. That’s a hard message for coastal communities to swallow (as the opposition in North Carolina attests), and not one that any politician wants to stand up and deliver.
The failure of public officials to confront the really big issues can create the illusion that they don’t exist. But it’s only an illusion. The reality is that sea level rise is happening faster now than it has in two thousand years, and the pace is accelerating thanks to ocean warming and the melting of glaciers and ice caps. While there is definitely uncertainty about just how high sea level will rise in the coming century, the growing scientific consensus is that we can reasonably expect at least three feet by 2100. That could mean a foot of rise – as much as we’ve seen over the past century – by as soon as 2050.
And that means we need to start making some hard decisions soon. Otherwise, as coastal geologist Rob Thieler said to me a few years ago, Mother Nature will make the decisions for us and we may not like the outcome.