Exile on Jones Street: Caution: Soul-searching ahead

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kirk rossby Kirk Ross

Congratulations are in order for completion of an entire session of the North Carolina General Assembly without causing a torrent of blistering editorials and snarky late-night commentary about the willful ignorance of sea-level rise.

Although commendable, it is not due to a change of policy but a combination of greater finesse in discussing the issue and a general lack of interest as more immediately pressing issues, like whether a few thousand teaching assistants are showing up for work this month or not.

But the legislature cannot and will not be able to deny the need for a harder look at climate change-related policy, and neither should those of us who count on decision-making from our public officials based on something at least approaching a rational world view.

As it stands, official state policy toward sea level rise is not reconcilable with a rational world view unless you have some kind of evidence that the rest of us don’t proving that the world behaves in a perfectly linear fashion based on historical trends. Because that, in essence, is the only on-the-books reference to sea-level rise policy in the North Carolina statues.

That legislation, passed in 2010 with the encouragement of climate-change denialists and coastal developers, started out restricting just about every state and local entity from even breathing the idea that sea-level rise might accelerate. (This was in direct contradiction to the fact that sea-level rise is going to accelerate.)

The legislation was eventually changed to allow local governments and the state university system to at least entertain the idea that maybe, somehow sea-level rise might accelerate beyond historical rates.

This was especially beneficial to the hundreds of university researchers in our state — which has, by the way, more than  3,375 miles of coastline — who seek to better understand and perhaps, once policy makers come to their senses, prepare for this eventuality.

It was also very, very helpful to those caught in the crossfire of this ideological debate over science. Right now, somewhere not far from the Atlantic Ocean, an engineer is trying the figure out where to put a building, how high to build a road or where the next sewage-treatment plant is going to sit. They know that when their employer goes before a bank or a bond issuer, the sum total of the work of those who deny climate change is less than squat.

That’s why the reckoning for policy makers on climate science is coming sooner than most think.

This year’s budget includes extensive plans for state investment along the Outer Banks. Meanwhile, the state’s official science panel, which is  charged with coming up with a new sea-level rise model is struggling to reconcile climate science with political realities.

While those will be high-profile fights, there will be hundreds of others at the local level as utilities, departments of transportation and towns and counties try to plan for roads, public buildings and infrastructure.

These kinds of projects are designed to last much deeper into this century, and that’s important when it comes to climate change. Right now, both the historic and the accelerated sea-level rise predictions diverge only a little for the first part of the 21st Century. It’s later on, decades out, when the rise that takes into account climate change starts to accelerate.

As any scientist and sailor can tell you, the coastline can deal with change. The barrier islands roll in and out with the rise and fall of the sea. The sounds, spartina marshes and estuaries shift around accordingly.

It’s what we put in, on and around these places that can’t easily adapt or survive. The natural systems of the coast are self-regulating. The human ones, at least for now, not so much.