Fighting AGW Religion in North Carolina (sea-level-rise debate gets political)
What’s been happening recently in North Carolina (NC) is a microcosm of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) story: politics versus science, ad-hominems versus journalism, evangelists versus pragmatists, etc.
The contentiousness is over one of the main AGW battlefields: sea-level rise (SLR). North Carolina happens to have a large amount of coastline and has become the U.S. epicenter for this issue.
The brief version is that this began several years ago when a state agency, the Coastal Resources Commission (CRC), selected a 20± member “science panel” to do a scientific assessment of the NC SLR situation through 2100. This could have been a very useful project if there had been balance in the personnel selections, and the panel’s assessment adhered to scientific standards. Regrettably, neither happened and the project soon jumped the rails, landing in the political agenda ditch.
In their 2010 report, the panel concluded that NC should expect a 39-inch SLR by 2100. Their case was built around a 2007 paper by Stefan Rahmstorf, and was not encumbered by a single reference to a perspective different from Rahmstorf’s. Shortly after the report was released, state agencies started making the rounds of North Carolina coastal communities, putting them on notice that they would need to make BIG changes (elevating roads and bridges, re-zoning property, changing flood maps for insurance purposes, etc.).
As an independent scientist, I was solicited by my coastal county to provide a scientific perspective on this report. Even though I wasn’t a SLR expert, I could clearly see that this document was a classic case of Confirmation Bias, as it violated several scientific standards. But to get into the technical specifics I solicited the inputs of about 40 international SLR experts (oceanographers, etc.).
I compiled and edited their responses to the CRC panel’s report into what I called a Critique. This 33-page document discussed how real science works, and then went through the 16-page CRC document, essentially line-by-line. In doing so numerous specious claims, unsupported assumptions, and questionable models were pointed out. It wasn’t pretty.
It was during this time that I was solicited to work with a small coastal organization called NC-20 (there are 20 NC coastal counties). Since they were interested in promoting science-based solutions (my agenda) for NC coastal issues, I agreed to be their Science Advisor and a board member (both non-paying, volunteer positions).
Initially we had hopes that the CRC panel’s report could be fixed, so we met with the head of the CRC, explained our concerns, and handed the Critique to him. He appeared to be receptive, and we were optimistic that this important matter could be straightened out. That proved to be an illusion, as none of the CRC panel members ever contacted us about fixing any of their mistakes, or about doing a more balanced assessment. Shame on them.
We subsequently asked that the Critique be posted on CRC’s SLR webpage, but they refused to do so. So much for presenting the facts to NC citizens.
On the positive side of things, due to our objections, the state did (temporarily anyway) back off from the rules and regulations that they had threatened coastal communities with. [BTW NC-20 is NOT disputing that there will be SLR. The amount of NC SLR is unknown, so a genuine scientific assessment of the NC SLR situation should be undertaken. What such an assessment entails is explained in the Critique’s Part 1.]
By all appearances, it seems the CRC assumed that the prestige of their science panel would win the day against the NC-20 upstarts. To help assure that outcome, they engaged in an intensive PR campaign to pervert this into a science versus real estate developers issue (with them representing the science side, of course!). Here’s a sample of several articles that appeared, and another.
It was during this time that a CRC Panel member wrote me saying that they agreed with the Critique, and apologized for signing off on the Panel’s report! The member stated that the Panel was driven by a few activists, and that everyone else simply went along. This was no surprise, but that an individual had the good conscience to apologize was refreshing.
Anyway, the CRC panel’s disinformation campaign didn’t work, as we didn’t go away. Further, almost everyone who actually read the Critique ended up being on our side. One legislator who liked it asked us to make a presentation to interested state legislators in November 2011. We took that opportunity and it was well received (see my part).
Not long after that the CRC panel changed their tactics. Their new plan was to issue an Addendum to their 2010 report, and then claim that all of our concerns were answered. If only that were the case! Their nine-page document was prepared after zero contact with us — which tells you all you need to know about the sincerity that they had in any scientific resolution.
My response was to follow the successful earlier pattern, so I passed it on to my network of international SLR experts for their commentary. Again they were forthcoming, so I was able to compile and edit a detailed 18-page response that I called a Commentary. We again sent this directly to CRC, asked them to put it on their SLR website — but posted it ourselves on our own site. [We received no response from CRC, and they have yet to post our document.]
What happened next was a BIG surprise. We were notified that state legislators were as exasperated as we were with the politicalization of these technical issues — and that they were going to introduce legislation to stop the agenda promoters! Wow.
In this case, SLR legislation was drafted by a staffer who has a PhD in oceanography. The main point of the document was that future SLR projections must be made based on extrapolating prior empirical data. In other words, state agencies would not be allowed to create policies that were based on speculations about some possible acceleration!
As a scientist, I’m always concerned about legislating technical matters. In this case, though, the evidence is quite clear that certain NC agencies have no genuine interest in real science. So what to do? Defunding them is a possibility, but that might be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Replacing the agency’s problem people is another option, but the logistics for that weren’t practical. So putting some constraints on these dogmatists has some merit.
… and Backlash
Not surprisingly, the backlash was immediate. These evangelists are used to getting their way, and for legislators to actually stand up against their religion was an unexpected development.
In their anguish they lashed out to anyone they could blame for this roadblock in their crusade — including yours truly. There were numerous rants (some national) lamenting how “good science” was being thwarted by ignorant legislators. Even the Colbert Report had fun with it.
Of course, the reality that the legislators were actually trying to protect North Carolina citizens from promoters masquerading their agendas as science, was rarely reported. Such are the times we are living in, where talk is cheap, and few understand what science really is.
What’s worse is that thousands of scientists are off the reservation, and have no interest in adhering to scientific principles or procedures. The solution (in my opinion) is that such renegades should have their degrees revoked, just as a priest is defrocked for violating his vows.
In any case, here is the latest version of NC SLR bill (H819 v3). Last Friday, there was a brief committee hearing (see interesting video) where this measure was discussed and voted on. It passed unanimously. If you have suggestions on improving this bill, please contact me.
As I understand it, the NC legislators may be voting on this measure this week. I am hoping that they will not be dissuaded from their worthy objective. I wrote this (word-limited-and-edited) op-ed to respond to some of the misinformation.
UPDATE: On 6/12/12 the NC Senate voted FOR this bill 35 to 12. The NC House will vote in the next day or so.
Some predict that this measure will pass the legislature and then be vetoed by our lame-duck Governor. As an optimist, I’m hoping that since the Governor no longer needs to cater to the green constituency, that instead she can send a message that real science should be the basis of the state’s technical policies. That would give her legacy a major positive boost.