Could the Coastal Resources Commission be coming to its senses about forecasting sea-level rise?

It’s possible. The (Raleigh) News & Observer reports that the commission is rethinking its policy of limiting the forecasts scientists can give it to only 30 years ahead. As it starts to work on its next big report, due in 2020, it may give its science advisory panel more leeway to tell it like it is — even if the predictions aren’t pleasant.

Remember 2012, when the commission decided that its science advisory panel should not give it the most accurate, far-reaching forecasts about how global warming is likely to affect sea levels and flooding on the state’s coast?

The commission, which develops policies for the state’s Coastal Management Program, issued its first report of expected sea-level rise back in 2010, and many legislators, not to mention people who develop coastal real estate, were horrified. The report said that sea levels were expected to rise more rapidly by the middle of this century, with a total rise of 39 inches by 2100.

You’d think that forecast, based on the best scientific data available, would have prompted legislators to encourage policies to deal with the predicted higher waters and to do whatever the state can to combat climate change. Instead, their reaction was to try to make the science go away. The state Senate wanted the CDC’s science advisers to base their sea-level forecasts on historical rates only — the amount of sea-level rise that was common before global warming became such a problem. That head-in-the-sand approach made North Carolina the butt of jokes across the country.

Eventually, the legislature passed a bill that didn’t restrict the science panel to historical data, but it did require it to consider varied views, including hypotheses — not in the mainstream of science — that sea level rise might slow or reverse.

The commission told its science advisory panel to give it forecasts for only 30 years into the future.

So, while the North Carolina commission charged with looking out for the coast tries to ignore science, development in coastal areas is accelerating. A recent report found that North Carolina is one of the worst states for building homes in areas that will be in the 20-year flood zone by mid-century. And that’s if global warming is controlled as outlined in the Paris climate agreement — which the U.S. has pulled out of.

Ignoring scientific forecasts doesn’t do much good when a hurricane hits, as coastal and inland areas learned when Florence stalled over the state last September. Many areas were flooded that weren’t considered to be in danger zones just a few decades ago.

People whose homes and businesses were destroyed, or whose drinking water and recreational areas were contaminated by hog lagoons, began to look a little differently at scientific forecasts. It makes little sense to keep on rebuilding things the way they were before a hurricane’s waters swept them away. It makes less sense to build new homes and businesses in places likely to be underwater in the foreseeable future.

When the commission meets to discuss what instructions to give the scientists advising it as they work on their next report, we suggest something like this: “Give us the best information you have, so that we can make informed plans. It’s better to know what to expect. Especially if it’s bad.”

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