Will North Carolina muster courage to confront rising seas?

Nov. 17, 2013 @ 01:58 PM

This has been a blessedly placid year for weather in North Carolina. For the first time in what seems like a long while, we’ve been spared destructive droughts, extended periods of excessive heat and -- knock on wood -- major hurricane damage. How pleasant it’s been to enjoy what feels like a more or less “normal” year!

The obvious downside to this respite, however, is the action that it has spurred (or more accurately, not spurred) from state leaders to plan for the future.

Despite overwhelming evidence that years like 2013 are likely to become increasingly rare, that our future is certain to include, among other things, more frequent serious storms, droughts and extreme weather and encroaching oceans and that now is the time to act while we still can, state leaders whistle merrily along, discussing plans to increase fossil fuel development and consumption and expand development along the coast.

Indeed, for some strange reason known only to them, a distressing proportion of our leaders actively ignore the evidence right outside their doors and embrace the notion that not only should climate change be a verboten subject, but that its existence as an issue at all is the byproduct of a monstrous conspiracy by radical environmentalists bent on imposing some kind of modern day Stalinism.

And so it is that we find ourselves an eighth of the way through the 21st Century doing mostly the same thing we’ve done for decades: developing more and more coastal real estate, building bigger, pricier (and higher) beach “cottages,” transporting more and more costly sand from fast-disappearing locations off the coast to “re-nourish” eroded beaches, expending gigantic sums to build new bridges and maintain the fragile blacktop that stitches together the Outer Banks and blatantly and intentionally thumbing our collective nose at the idea that the Atlantic Ocean has other plans.

It’s not this way everywhere. Despite the threat of cruel attacks by conservative politicians and energy industry-funded front groups, a growing number of public and private institutions -- national, state and local governments, giant corporate actors like the insurance industry and even NASA and the military -- have begun to act (or at least seriously discuss the issue).

An article recently in the New York Times shined new light on the issue of sea level rise in one of the nation’s most vulnerable regions – South Florida. As the piece noted:

“Concern about rising seas is stirring not only in the halls of academia but also in local governments along the state’s southeastern coast.

“The four counties there — Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach, with a combined population of 5.6 million — have formed an alliance to figure out solutions.”

Unfortunately, even in hyper-vulnerable Florida, the Times reports that passivity and a refusal to face hard facts remain strong competing forces.

“Much of Florida’s 1,197-mile coastline is only a few feet above the current sea level, and billions of dollars’ worth of buildings, roads and other infrastructure lies on highly porous limestone that leaches water like a sponge.

“But while officials here and in other coastal cities … have begun to address the problem, the issue has gotten little traction among state legislators in Tallahassee.

“The issue appears to be similarly opaque to segments of the community — business, real estate, tourism — that have a vested interest in protecting South Florida’s bustling economy.

“‘The business community for the most part is not engaged,’ said Wayne Pathman, a Miami land-use lawyer and Chamber of Commerce board member. ‘They’re not affected yet. They really haven’t grasped the possibilities.’”

Inevitably, though, such discussions are becoming more and more unavoidable.

Unfortunately, here in North Carolina, we remain largely immune to even such partial progress. Like a shortsighted Tallahassee politician or an oblivious Miami Realtor worried only about today’s sale, our leaders of both parties have rejected the advice of scientists to look, think and plan.

So, what to do? How do concerned citizens open to science and its findings break through? While there’s no magic answer for overcoming willful foolishness -- be it based on greed, fear, ideology or all three -- facts can and do have an impact over time. The more that open and thinking people listen and learn, the greater the chance that, slowly, surely -- not unlike a rising tide -- the truth will spread.