Wednesday, June 25, 2014

North Carolina Sea Level Rise legislation

A couple of year's ago, North Carolina passed the HB 819 discussing the topic of sea level rise in the state.  However, note that North Carolina refers to the phenomena as "sea level change."

My understanding is the controversial bill amended somewhat the controversial existing legislation.  This caused quite the stir amongst climate change policy advocates and scientists involved in studying sea level rise.

Some excerpts of the legislation:
§ 113A-107.1. Sea-level policy. 
(e) The Commission shall be the only State agency authorized to define rates of sea-level change for regulatory purposes. If the Commission defines rates of sea-level change for regulatory purposes, it shall do so in conjunction with the Division of Coastal Management of the Department. The Commission and Division may collaborate with other State agencies, boards, and commissions; other public entities; and other institutions when defining rates of sea-level change.
SECTION 2.(c) 
...The Commission shall direct the Science Panel to include in its five-year updated assessment 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. ... The Commission shall also compare the determination of sea level based on historical calculations versus predictive models. The Commission shall also address the consideration of oceanfront and estuarine shorelines for dealing with sea-level assessment and not use one single sea-level rate for the entire coast. ...
The legislation directs the Coastal Resources Commission to direct its science panel to write up an update to the  2010 report, "North Carolina Sea Level Rise Assessment Report." The science panel is made up of North Carolina scientists- mostly from government and universities.  The Coastal Resources Commission is made up mainly of business owners in the coastal region (and I think there are a couple of mayors).

The graph below is from the original 2010 report and provides estimates of future sea level rise in North Carolina based on historical measures.

The controversy comes from disagreement about what role North Carolina political interests should play in determining measurements of sea level risk.

Of particularly dispute, the Science Panel was instructed to use historic measurements of sea level rise to estimate future rise (though, it is unclear to me who exactly instructed them to do so).  Therefore, many estimates of sea level rise based on various assumptions about climate change, future earth and social conditions, etc. cannot be used.  

North Carolina's management of risk measurements is by no means unique.  

Florida does something similar regarding hurricane risk.  Standards set by the FCHLPM require that models approved for use base hurricane risk predictions on the historic HURDAT record and so, "near term" sorts of predictions cannot be used (despite their use on the international risk transfer market).  

Nor should we forget outright rejections of flood risk estimates by Florida, Alabama and Mississippi and hurricane risk estimates by Massachusetts.

What is most intriguing about North Carolina's method for controlling the idea of risk imposed upon itself is the political arrangement of doing so.

The expert science panel does not appear to have authority or autonomy to determine the best means of going about measuring risk.  It appears as somewhat of a capture of local business interests through its oversight by the Coastal Resources Commission.

Specifically, the legislation requires that the Commission and the Science Panel must work together and negotiate acceptable scientific reasoning and conclusions (See section 2c above).

Certainly, this ruffles feathers in the scientific community and those in society that value autonomy of the scientific process... or at least a guise of autonomy since is never truly "unfettered."

A better idea may be to have elected officials appoint an independent research panel of scientists with relevant expertise.   The reports this independent panel produces can then be used to help guide public debate about how much risk we wish to plan for given other public policy objectives.  

Pros/Cons, Costs/Benefits, and moral values to be maximized (e.g. public safety) are good tools for this debate.