North Carolina Senate’s Stance on Sea Level Resembles FEMA’s

By Katee Kline, Law Intern

On June 12, 2012, North Carolina’s Senate passed, by a vote of 34 to 11, a bill forbidding the use of sea level rise predictions which incorporate the expected impacts of climate change in the creation of any state or municipal policy.  Though the state’s House of Representatives voted on and unanimously rejected House Bill 819, the bill’s supporting senators are considering enacting a moratorium to accomplish its intended result, and a revised version of the bill is pending.  The most controversial part of HB 819 states that no agency but the Department of Coastal Management may determine rates of sea level rise, and these rates must be based on “historical data”—from an undetermined number of years following 1900—and “shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea level rise.”  In other words, a majority of the North Carolina Senate is choosing to reject the findings of authoritative scientific bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the United States Global Change Research Program that sea level rise is occurring at greater than historic rates.  Furthermore, the bill would prohibit inland counties from adopting any policies addressing sea level rise, despite their being far from immune from its effects.  Changes in the water table result in more dramatic floods in riverine areas, and sea level rise leads to salt intrusion even in inland areas, among other problems.  This legislation would encourage unsustainable and risky building practices, particularly in coastal areas.

This bill resembles the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) stance on sea level rise in regards to its National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the sole umbrella provider of flood insurance throughout the United States.  The NFIP currently does not include projected sea level rise in its floodplain maps, even though rates of sea level rise are already developed and could readily be incorporated, rendering maps far more accurate and forward-looking.  Existing floodplain maps, based on current sea levels, are quickly outdated and infrequently updated.  This policy, like the North Carolina bill, encourages unsustainable development patterns by overlooking important data.  Property owners are given unrealistic projections of the future of their coastal dwellings, and insurance rates for vulnerable areas are substantially lower than the risk they are meant to reflect.

The good news is that the NFIP’s short-sighted mapping strategies might soon be phased out.  FEMA is currently considering updating the NFIP, with a goal of creating more accurate floodplain maps and rate structures.  This would bring the NFIP into step with most federal statutes regulating coastal development, which specifically address the current and future effects of climate change on our landscapes.  In conjunction with this potential step forward by FEMA, the North Carolina House’s rejection of HB 819 is certainly encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether the state will ultimately take a contrasting step backward in terms of its climate change policy.

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