Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Update: Revised North Carolina Sea Level Rise Bill Goes to Governor

Four more years. North Carolina coastal communities can't take official sea level rise rates into account when planning for the future.

Bud Davis, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The North Carolina House of Representatives voted today to revise controversial legislation that would have barred state planning officials from considering the possibility that a changing climate might accelerate sea level rise. Climate scientists who had been highly critical of the former proposal gave a lukewarm reception to the changes, noting the bill still places a 4-year moratorium on the ability of planners to draw on the most up-to-date science.

"This version is better than the original Senate version," says climate researcher Robert Jackson of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "It's still bad policy though because it requires the state to bury its head in the sand for 4 more years."

Last month, North Carolina's Senate sparked controversy by approving language in legislation (HB 819) that would have required the state's Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), which sets rules and policies for coastal development and grants permits, to base predictions of future sea level rise along the state's coast on a steady, linear rate of increase. Critics argued that that would have prevented the commission from considering events, such as the melting of polar ice caps caused by increased global temperatures, which might accelerate the rate at which seas are expected to rise.

In today's action, the House voted 68 to 46 to revise HB 819. The changes take out the requirement that planners use only linear estimates of future sea level rise, but also bar state agencies from considering accelerated sea level rise in decision-making until 1 July 2016. The bill also orders the CRC's science panel to update its 2010 assessment of sea level rise with a new "comprehensive" study by 31 March 2015. Specifically, new language directs the panel to consider:

A comprehensive review and summary of peer-reviewed scientific literature that address the full range of global, regional, and North Carolina-specific sea-level change data and hypotheses, including sea-level fall, no movement in sea level, deceleration of sea-level rise, and acceleration of sea-level rise. When summarizing research dealing with sea level, the Commission and the Science Panel shall define the assumptions and limitations of predictive modeling used to predict future sea-level scenarios.

In a debate just prior to today's vote, revision proponents insisted the changes would assure adherence to scientific principles. Representative Marilyn Avila (R) said that the additional study would allow scientists to test sea level change hypotheses generated by computer models against historical data.

Opponents of the revisions, however, bemoaned the fact that state agencies would not be able to consider rates of sea level rise for 4 years. "We have serious sea level rise and we have a bill here that says the CRC can't consider sea level rise while they're making decisions," said Representative Pricey Harrison (D) during the floor debate. Other opponents who owned property in coastal communities said they'd want to know whether they would have to make modifications to their real estate or purchase insurance to prepare for future sea level rise.

The debate also featured discussion on the impact melting ice might have on global sea levels. Some members argued that melting icebergs would have no effect on sea levels -- and so the state didn't have to take global warming into account. But others were quick to point out that melting land-based ice, such as the great ice sheets on Greenland, could cause rising seas.

Duke University's Jackson wasn't impressed by the debate. "The Senate and House can say what they want but the seas are rising," he says. The climate researcher points to a recent U.S. Geological Survey study saying sea level along portions of the Atlantic Coast, from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Boston, will rise three to four times faster than the rest of the globe.

Jackson says the original Senate version of this bill "was the most blatant case of trying to ignore scientific input that I've seen in a long time." And he adds that it points to a larger issue: "Are we a society that wants to make decisions based on the best information, even if the best information isn't the answer we want?"

North Carolina's Senate already voted on 2 July (40 to 1) to adopt the revisions. Now, the bill will move on to the governor, who must sign off on it before it can become law.