Monday, December 29, 2014

Will Lex Luthor save North Carolina from climate change?

The only sense I can make of the plan proposed last week by North Carolina legislators to join the climate change denialist bandwagon and alter the way the state projects rising sea levels is that they are taking their cues from Superman's nemesis.

Will Lex Luthor save North Carolina from climate change?

By Michael Yudell

The only sense I can make of the plan proposed last week by North Carolina legislators to join the climate change denialist bandwagon and alter the way the state projects rising sea levels is that they are taking their cues from Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor.

These lawmakers, you see, have proposed legislation that threatens at least 2,000 square miles of the Tar Heel State’s pristine coastline. Perhaps they were inspired by the diabolical scheme in 1978's Superman: The Movie, in which Luthor has bought up thousands of square miles of land east of the San Andreas fault, planning to trigger an earthquake and send much of the West Coast into the sea.

“Bye-bye, California. Hello, new West Coast,” Luthor tells Superman, just before exposing the Man of Steel to kryptonite and setting his evil plan in motion. “My West Coast,” he says, pointing to a map that shows Costa Del Lex, Luthorville, and Marina del Lex.

Could it be that these real-life legislators and their backers, who seem to come from a group called NC-20, have divined a similar strategy – and, like Lex Luthor, have purchased thousands of square miles of land that sits on the edge of areas that will be affected by current scientific projections of sea-level rise? Good-bye, Outer Banks. Hello, Costa Del Legislators. Granted, it may take 100 or more years for their own diabolical plan to pay off, but if ice sheets keep falling into the ocean, sea levels may rise faster than predicted just a few years back. It now seems that sea waters globally will rise at least a half-meter, but possibly twice that by the year 2100.

The absurd proposal – the actual proposal – on the table in North Carolina requires that sea-level rise “shall only be determined using historical data. … Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.”

In other words, to hell with the science. Let’s have an underwater beach party! Scientific American blogger Scott Huler suggests that the legislation is North Carolina’s way to make sea-level rise itself illegal. The proposal, according to Huler, is akin to telling weather forecasters: “Don’t use radar and barometers; use the Farmer’s Almanac and what grandpa remembers.”

All joking aside, North Carolina’s coastline is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, making the idea not just foolish, but harmful. The Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration writes, for example, that the “major impacts of an increase in the rate of sea level rise in North Carolina are increased erosion, flooding and storm damage.” Of particular concern is that “rising sea level would allow saltwater to infiltrate farther inland and upstream” and that higher salinity in surface and groundwater will impair “water supplies, ecosystems, and coastal farmland as well as harming aquatic plants and animals.”

Left unchecked, these outcomes are a potential public health disaster. It is precisely to avoid such outcomes that North Carolina needs accurate measurements of rising waters. People living along the current coastline would benefit from state policy designed to mitigate the impact of impending sea-level rise. Instead, this legislation seeks to minimize knowledge of rising sea levels, fearing the economic development restrictions and regulations that would likely accompany a realistic appraisal of what lies ahead for the Carolina coast.

That our climate is changing and that humans are causing it is a fact agreed upon by almost all scientists working in the field. It is non-controversial. A recent survey found that 97-98 percent of “climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support” the basic tenets of anthropogenic (human caused) climate change, and that “the relative expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced … are substantially below that of convinced researchers.”

You wouldn’t know this from watching the news, which has done an appalling job of reporting on the complexities of climate change and on climate change itself. A recent Media Matters report documents that “despite ongoing climate news, broadcast coverage has dropped significantly” since 2009.

Nor would you know that this issue is non-controversial by listening to the advocates of the proposed sea-level measurement restriction in North Carolina. The Charlotte Observer quotes Tom Thompson, chairman of the anti-measure-the-sea-level-with-science group NC-20, as saying that his opponents “have a passion for sea-level rise and they can’t give it up.”

Well, he's got that part right. Scientists do have a passion for sea-level rise – because the data supports it and they know that so much more than short-term economic development is at stake here. The people of North Carolina, and all of us, would benefit from paying closer attention to this vital issue.

Take that, Lex Luthor!


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About this blog

What is public health — and why does it matter?

Through prevention, education, and intervention, public health practitioners - epidemiologists, health policy experts, municipal workers, environmental health scientists - work to keep us healthy.

It’s not always easy. Michael Yudell, Jonathan Purtle, and other contributors tell you why.

Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, MSc Assistant Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
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