Sea-Level Rise Foibles and Follies

Topics: Climate Change, Legislature, Sea-Level Rise

Last week I was in Wilmington to meet with N.C. Coastal Federation members and give them a blow-by-blow recounting of the 2012 N.C. General Assembly’s comic, important and frustrating debate regarding sea-level rise. You may recall that this debate went, as my kid likes to say, “totally viral” and made headlines around the world.

During my talk, it surprised me how many folks had not seen Steven Colbert’s clip about the bill. I also enjoyed showing those in attendance some edited clips of the N.C. House of Representatives’ debate.

TV satirist Steven Colbert skewered the original version of the sea-level rise bill.

So I thought I would repost it here for others who might be interested.

If you are not up to speed on this bill, the Coastal Review Online chronicles on the subject are a quick and easy read.  The Reader’s Digest version is that the legislature considered a bill that many thought tried to outlaw sea level rise in North Carolina by restricting the kind of data that can be used to calculate it.

For a spot-on and hilarious explanation/deconstruction of the bill, the Colbert clip is required viewing.

I am also a big fan of WTVD NewsChannel 11’s Jon Camp and his reporting of the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee’s approval of the bill. The way Camp uses the Colbert routine to explain the bill is a masterful, post-modern mash-up that makes an arcane issue fun and understandable.

Camp (and his editor) deserve Emmys.

As you watch the clip, by the way, you will notice Sen. David Rouzer is the Senate sponsor of the bill. Rouzer, of course, is now running for Congress against Mike McIntyre in N.C. House District 7, which includes Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Cumberland, Duplin, New Hanover, Pender, Robeson and Sampson counties

Whether you have seen these clips or not, I am guessing you have not seen footage of the House floor debate on the issue, which is instructive in so many ways about how legislators understand this issue. I have included links to some rough footage of the House debate – the visuals are not great but, trust me, they are worth a gander regardless.

Rep. Pat McElraft

For starters, there is Rep. Pat McElraft’s introduction of the bill on the House floor late in the 2012 session. At this point in the process, McElraft has acquiesced to changes in the bill after members of her own House GOP caucus raised questions about in behind-closed-doors meetings. The result was that she agreed to take the offending language regarding how sea-level rise should be calculated out of the bill and replace it with a prohibition on any state action regarding sea-level rise until 2016. The changes also mandate yet another N.C. Coastal Resources Commission study of sea level rise’s impact in North Carolina. This study is to start in 2015 and be completed a year later.

Click here for the first part of McElraft’s introduction of the (forgive the pun) watered-down version of the bill. McElraft’s argument goes right at the science of sea-level rise and uses predictions of a new Ice Age that were made in the 1970s to refute the veracity of climate change modeling today.  This argument about “good science” and “bad science” and “real science” were cornerstones of the arguments GOP supporters of the bill made this summer.  Theirs is essentially an economic argument that the science behind sea-level rise is too immature to justify the expense of preparing for climate change.

Later in the same House debate, Rep. Larry Pittman gives us a different shade of GOP skepticism about climate change, suggesting that it is hoax and that human beings have no impact on the world’s weather patterns.  He finishes with a warning that policies that aim to mitigate climate change’s impact are simply thinly-disguised attempts to limit individual liberty, another GOP concern about this issue. You can listen to Pittman’s floor debate here.  Pittman’s perspective, I think, is shared by a smaller group of GOP legislators, who make up for their smaller numbers with a much more strongly-felt opposition to any public policy response to climate change.

The state House became consumed by the Great Ice Cube Debate.

Then comes the Great Iceberg Debate of 2012, in which Rep. Bert Jones likens the melting of glaciers to ice melting in a glass of water and Rep. Bill Faison attempts to convince Jones that the  glass-of-ice-water metaphor is, well, all wet when one is trying to understand how global ice patterns impact sea level rise.  Hilarity, confusion and frustration ensue, until other members of the House ask Speaker Thom Tillis to put the body of its rhetorical misery and he admonishes both legislators to try to stay on the subject.

Two other clips folks will enjoy come from Rep. Deborah Ross, who speaks in opposition to the bill, as does Rep. Jennifer Weiss, invoking the memory of one of the world’s scientific heavyweights.

In the end of course, both the state House and the state Senate approved this bill. You can see how your representative voted on the final version of the bill here and how your senator voted on the original (Colbert) version of the bill here.   

Despite calls from scientists, conservationists and others to veto the bill, Gov. Beverely Perdue allowed it to become law without her signature.  The Greensboro News and Record’s editorial blog on the bill and Perdue’s decision is a good read.

By the way, press reports continue to trickle out that this bill “outlaws sea level rise.” That is incorrect. The EARLIER, Senate version of the bill, HB819, sponsored by Rouzer did in fact include the language ridiculed by Colbert. The final version of the HB819 does not include the Colbert language. It simply prohibits state agencies from doing much of anything regarding sea level rise until 2016. The final bill does mandate a study but there are no prohibitions or restrictions on the data or science used in that study.

Rob Young

For a scientist’s perspective on the more objectionable Senate version of the bill, check out this column by coastal geologist Rob Young, who was also a member of the original science panel which estimated a 39-inch rise in the seas off the NC coast during the next century.  That estimate kicked off a storm of protest by some coastal counties and development interests and ultimately led to the introduction of the McElraft-Rouzer-Colbert bill.

Late last month, the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission held a public hearing on a state sea level rise policy and essentially punted on the issue. No doubt they read the bill as well.

I will let the US Geological Survey have the last word on this issue. Late in the legislative debate, it released a study showing that parts of the eastern seaboard will feel the impacts of sea level rise much more quickly and dramatically than other coastal regions of the country. The USGS called these high impact areas climate change “hotspots.”  

North Carolina was at the top of the list.


About the Author: Rob Lamme

Rob Lamme is the N.C. Coastal Federation’s lobbyist in Raleigh. He has worked in and around the legislature since 1998, including stints as the director of Government Relations for the NC Department of Health and Human Services and budget director for the N.C. Senate. He lives in Durham with his wife, Sandy, and Annie the Wonder Dog. When he is not walking the Halls of Democracy in Raleigh, Rob likes to bicycle, run, backpack, garden and sleep on the couch in the middle of the day. He can be reached at coastalfederation@rlamme.com.