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What Are the Implications of North Carolina Legislating Against Peer-reviewed Science on Sea-level Rise

Ask a Scientist - July 2012

In a nearly unprecedented move, the North Carolina Senate recently voted to prohibit agencies and towns from using the latest scientific data on sea-level rise in coastal management decisions. The state’s house of representatives dialed back the proposal, but the bill—now adopted by both chambers—still refuses to accept a peer-reviewed scientific report commissioned by the state and prevents enactment of building standards and other rules that incorporate protections against rising sea levels until 2016. Union of Concerned Scientists’ Senior Staff Writer Seth Shulman sat down for a Q & A session with Gretchen Goldman, an analyst in the Scientific Integrity Program, to discuss the story and its implications.

SS: Did the North Carolina Senate really try to legislate what science could be used for protecting its own coastal communities?

GG: Yes. The bill in question, available here (pdf), specified that the state’s predictions about sea-level rise shall be made only by a single authorized state agency and “shall only be determined using historical data” gathered since the year 1900. Perhaps even more dramatically, the bill prohibited this agency from making anything other than linear extrapolations from this historical data in its determinations. That means the latest scientific evidence—predicting substantially increased sea-level rise in the future, such as from melting polar ice caps—could not be taken into consideration. After considerable public ridicule, the state house and senate reached a compromise that still represents a partial victory for the anti-science crowd. Like the initial senate bill, it still rejects the findings of a $5 million, peer-reviewed scientific report on the subject and requires the state commission that authorized it to go back to the drawing board and do a new study that won’t be completed until at least 2016.

SS: The idea of politicians dictating what science can be used sounds downright un-American. 

GG: What’s particularly notable about this incident is the direct and unabashed interference in the science related to a vital environmental and public health issue for the state. What led to the vote is that North Carolina had received funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to look at the coastal impact of rising sea level. A panel of scientists and environmental experts drew upon the latest scientific evidence, citing some 16 pertinent studies in a report (pdf) with the admittedly alarming recommendation that the state ought to prepare for a sea-level rise of some 39 inches by the year 2100. That recommendation was a conservative estimate based on the best available science. The senate’s response was this really remarkable and unfortunate attempt to “legislate away” what the science is telling us. Another way to understand this incident is that this bill actually would have prevented the state from using the scientific process to inform policies related to sea-level rise. And that does run counter to the values of most Americans. 

SS: Wouldn’t North Carolina legislators want to use the best science available to protect their coastal communities?

GG: It appears that some of them were terribly worried about how a rising sea level might affect property values and development along the coast in the near term. A group called NC-20 that pushed for this particular bill is led primarily by real estate developers and business interests. Also influential in this effort was a new organization called the American Tradition Institute, or ATI. If that group sounds familiar, it is because they are engaged in attacking climate science in many other venues as well, including by bringing harassing legal cases against climate scientists. In Virginia, for example, ATI is suing to try to get access to the private email correspondence of climate scientist Michael Mann. When the Institute for Southern Studies looked into it, they found that in 2010, the lion’s share of ATI’s funding came from the fossil fuel industry, especially from someone named Doug Lair, whose family sold its oil company, Lair Petroleum, to billionaire William Koch, a major funder of climate denial groups, in 1989.

The role of ATI in this case is a good example of how corporate interests can employ seemingly independent nonprofit groups to steer the conversation on climate policy in their own self-interest but without accountability. Groups like these, which we discuss in our recent report, A Climate of Corporate Control allow companies to push agendas they might not otherwise choose to advocate publicly. Because of the secret way that commercial interests can utilize these groups, the funding of “front groups” is an important mechanism through which corporations influence the national dialogue on climate change.

SS: Is this just a North Carolina problem, then, or are there other examples of this kind of interference in science?

GG: We’d love to believe that this is an isolated incident but, unfortunately, it is not. Just recently in Virginia, for instance, a state legislator omitted words including “sea level rise” and “climate change” from the description of a state-commissioned study of coastal impacts from global warming, claiming that these words represented “liberal code words.”  And we have seen anti-science legislation in states such as Tennessee seeking to regulate or inhibit the teaching of evolution and climate change science in schools. What is particularly unfortunate in this case, though, is that the potential consequences are so immense for these coastal communities. We know from many studies on the subject that it is not only safer but far more cost effective for communities to work on adaptation strategies now rather than waiting until changes need to be made on an emergency basis or in response to disasters that could have been prevented or mitigated. The bottom line in North Carolina, or whenever these issues come up, is that citizens and stakeholders have the obligation—and, of course, must always have the right—to consider the best available science or technical evidence when they are addressing issues that have an impact on the welfare of their community.

Dr. Gretchen Goldman researches influences and interference in how science is used in federal government policies. She came to UCS from the Georgia Institute of Technology where she was a postdoctoral research fellow working on statistical modeling of urban air pollution for use in epidemiologic studies of acute human health effects. Dr. Goldman holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Environmental Engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Atmospheric Science from Cornell University.

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