North Carolina and California: Divergent Approaches for Dealing with Sea Level Rise

As you may have heard (or even seen) by now, North Carolina legislators are circulating a bill that would require the NC Division of Coastal Management to only use historic rates of sea level rise to project future changes in sea level, ignoring the reality of accelerated sea level rise rates caused by melting glaciers and expansion of the oceans due to global warming. 

The difference between a scenario that relies on historic rates of sea level rise and one that considers climate change is substantial.  In 2010, the state’s Science Panel on Coastal Hazards took into consideration historic and projected future rates of sea level rise and recommended that the state plan for a rise in sea level of 39 inches (3.3 feet) by 2100.  If based solely on historic rates, sea level would be projected to only rise 8 inches by 2100—a difference of over 2.5 feet.

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  •  Coastal flooding in Elizabeth City, NC (courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)

As affirmed by the IPCC, National Research Council, and NOAA, to name but a few, the rate of global sea level rise is accelerating.  Sea level rise puts many communities along the North Carolina coast at risk from tidal flooding, storm surge, and erosion.  A recent analysis by Climate Central estimates that 76,000 people, 56,000 homes, and 1.2 million acres of land in the state lie within 4 feet of the local high tide line.  In nearly half of North Carolina’s 20 coastal counties, at least 10 percent of the population would be at risk.

As if ignoring the science on sea level rise wasn’t bad enough, the bill would also require any public body (state, county, or local) to adhere to the rate of sea level rise developed by the Division of Coastal Management.  If an “official” rate has not been established, any sea level rise policies or guidelines developed would be prohibited from including any sea level rise rates.  It’s a shame that some legislators in North Carolina are so eager to stop local governments from taking meaningful action to prepare for the grave threat that sea level rise poses to coastal communities.

In stark contrast, legislators in California are being proactive and demonstrating strong leadership when it comes to protecting the state from sea level rise.  Last week, the California State Senate passed SB 1066, which authorizes the State Coastal Conservancy to fund and implement projects to address climate change impacts, including sea level rise, storm surge, erosion, saltwater intrusion, flooding, and other coastal hazards.  This legislation recognizes the risks that sea level rise poses to the state’s people, public and private property, infrastructure, beaches, coastal habitat, and other precious coastal resources. 

SB 1066 clarifies existing law and establishes clear authority for the Coastal Conservancy to address climate change.  It will help to maintain public access to the coast; protect wetlands; build coastal resilience to climate impacts; and protect infrastructure, including ports, highways, bridges, and hiking and biking trails; among numerous other benefits.  It also will provide technical assistance to help local agencies address climate risks.      

And this bill is just the latest in a long line of actions that the state government is taking to prepare for climate change threats, as detailed in our Ready or Not report.  According to a recent survey of nearly 600 coastal professionals in California, 93 percent are taking steps to address climate change risks in their communities.  Fortunately, they are receiving much-needed support and leadership from state authorities.     

In one corner, you have North Carolina, which is trying to legislate away the ability of local communities to prepare for rising seas.  In the other, you have California, which is making concerted efforts to ensure that communities are adequately prepared for climate change threats.  Who do you think will be better off?