Legislators rule prediction of rising sea out of bounds

Surfers look out over the waves at Wrightsville Beach, N.C. North Carolina's legislature put aside the latest predictions of rising sea levels, for coastal planning purposes, in favor of more study. Long-term predictions of a three-foot rise by 2010 could needlessly hurt development, critics said.

Jeff Horwich: In North Carolina, lawmakers have passed a law about planning for rising seas. Basically, it forbids coastal communities from making any plans that factor in the latest climate change science.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Eve Troeh reports.


Eve Troeh: Real estate agent Tom Hranicka has an ocean view from his home on Cape Hatteras. He often gives newcomers a book called "The Battle for North Carolina's Coast."

Tom Hranicka: And one of the common responses I've gotten is "I'm afraid to read it; I'm not sure I want to know what it has to say."

Because, most everyone has seen the shoreline shift, after a hurricane or nor-easter. And what's at stake is where people can, or should, build.

Hranicka: Setbacks from the ocean, depending upon what the erosion rate is. Part of that erosion is due to rising seas.

To be clear, everyone agrees the sea is rising. But it's difficult to say how much.

Spencer Rogers: Almost nobody will actually see sea level rise.

Spencer Rogers is a construction and erosion expert with the public agency Sea Grant. He's on a state panel that said: the sea is rising faster than we thought. How much faster?

Rogers: The accelerated rate over 30 years is three nickels thick.

The legislature isn't worried about three nickels. It's worried about the 90-year prediction. That puts the sea a meter higher than today.

Regulations based on that prediction could hurt development. The state's frozen any plans that factor in rising seas, until a new study gets done. But people along the coast will find the latest science on their own, says MIT economist Michael Greenstone.

Michael Greenstone: The North Carolina legislature can no more hide this information than they can vote to ban rainy days.

And the big-time money doesn't look that far ahead, anyway, says Janice Ochenkowsi. She studies risk for global real estate firm Jones Lang Lasalle.

Janice Ochenkowski: Ocean levels are not expected to rise significantly in the next few decades, and investors typically look at a five- to ten-year investment horizon.

Sea level rise might impact how people build or protect their property. But everyone already knows coastal real estate is risky, says Nags Head realtor Greg Cremia.

Greg Cremia: I think that people should just be warned that in 50 years their house might be gone, and then let 'em decide if they want to do it or not.

And most of them, he says, will still do it -- buy something on the beach, and enjoy it as long as they can.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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