What South Carolinians Deserve to Know about Climate Change

Got Science? | April 2013

Reports came to our attention last month that the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had been withholding a report about the local impact of climate change since November, 2011.

Everything about the story pointed to political interference, including the unexpected departure of former DNR Director John Frampton, who had led the state agency for eight years and spearheaded the climate report in question. The local press reported that Frampton had been forced out by a political appointee who had been named by South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to head a self-described “business-friendly” board in charge of the state agency.

Botany Bay Beach, South Carolina

Of course, our attention was all the more piqued given a similarly anti-science response to climate impacts last year in neighboring North Carolina. In that earlier case, North Carolina politicians had refused to accept a peer-reviewed scientific report on climate-related sea level rise that the state had commissioned and the state senate went so far as to pass a bill (later overturned) that specifically prohibited agencies and municipalities from using the latest scientific data on sea level rise in coastal management decisions.

UCS Investigates

Always concerned about incidents in which scientific information is suppressed or distorted, the Union of Concerned Scientists looked further into the South Carolina case by contacting some of the people involved.

Barry Beasley, a natural resource expert who had worked on the suppressed South Carolina climate report for more than a year before retiring from the DNR at the end of 2010, expressed dismay that the report had never been issued. Beasley explained that an 18-member team, including senior scientists at the agency, had spent three years compiling the latest scientific data about the effects of climate change on South Carolina.

“The information we collected is important for both the public in South Carolina and especially for natural resource managers in the state,” Beasley said. “The public needs access to that information and it’s part of the state’s job to help people understand the implications of changes in the climate that are already underway.”

Getting to the Truth

Official explanations for the suppression of the report were also less than satisfactory. Alvin Taylor, the current head of the DNR who replaced Frampton, noted only that the agency’s “priorities have changed” since the report was completed. Caroline Rhodes, a small business owner and political appointee who, until recently, headed the board overseeing the DNR, told the press that the report seemed too complicated for the public.

“It seemed like it [the report] was trying to say a lot without us having the knowledge to stand behind it,” Rhodes opined, adding that climate change is “a controversial subject; there’s a lot of pros and cons.” (Since those comments, Rhodes resigned her post as board chair after it was determined that she lied under oath to the state legislature when she flatly denied involvement in Frampton’s ouster.)

Thankfully in this case, the local reporting was strong. Not only did one local reporter, Sammy Fretwell, stick with the story throughout many twists and turns, but his news outlet, TheState.com, obtained access to the suppressed report and published it in its entirety on its website. “We felt there was an important public interest in this report, especially because it had passed all internal review and had been readied for release by the agency,” Fretwell explained.

The Public's Right to Know

The implications outlined in the 102-page report are indeed significant. Among the findings: South Carolina faces an average temperature rise of as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit over the next 70 years and can expect increased flooding on beaches and marshes, salt water intrusion into coastal rivers and freshwater aquifers that is likely to kill off or deplete some species of fish and potentially affect drinking-water supplies. According to the report, the state also faces the likelihood of more “dead zones” in the ocean off the coast with potentially perilous effects on the state’s population of loggerhead sea turtles.

In the coming years, South Carolina can expect increased flooding on beaches and marshes, and salt water intrusion into coastal rivers and freshwater aquifers.

Reviewing the report, Andrew Rosenberg, a biologist and director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that it offers “a clear, straightforward, and science-based description of how South Carolina should meet the challenges of ongoing climate change.” As Rosenberg put it: “Far from suggesting anything out of the mainstream of either science or public policy, the report recommends a set of common sense steps to acquire better information and plan for the known impacts of a changing climate. Could it really be that the politicians in South Carolina don’t want their constituents to know what is happening, nor their public servants to prepare to meet these challenges? How does that serve the public interest?”

A Welcome Reversal

As we neared press time, we planned to put those questions to Bob Perry, Director of Environmental Programs at the DNR, who headed the climate report’s team. When we spoke to him, however, Perry told us that the department had finally decided to release the report with no changes to its scientific content, adding only a new foreword by the current DNR director. While no official release date has yet been announced, we laud the decision.

It took the work of vigorous local press that not only reported the story, but proactively released the information to the public in its entirety, as well as the spotlight of national attention from UCS and other organizations. Nonetheless, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources has belatedly made a welcome choice that will give the people of South Carolina and their officials at least some of the science-based information they need to prepare for the many challenges presented by climate impacts. The outcome is certainly a lot better than hiding the information in a drawer. After all, as Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, failing to prepare is like preparing to fail.

Images (top, bottom): Flickr Commons, nfgusedautoparts; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service