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New Law in North Carolina Bans Latest Science on Sea-Level Rise

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(RALEIGH, N.C.) -- A new law in North Carolina will ban the state from basing coastal policies on the latest scientific predictions of how much the sea level will rise, prompting environmentalists to accuse the state of disrespecting climate science.

The law has put the state in the spotlight for what critics have called nearsightedness and climate change denial, but its proponents said the state needed to put a moratorium on predictions of sea level rise until scientific techniques improve.

The law was drafted in response to an estimate by the state's Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) that the sea level will rise by 39 inches in the next century, prompting fears of costlier home insurance and accusations of anti-development alarmism among residents and developers in the state's coastal Outer Banks region.

Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue had until Thursday to act on the bill known as House Bill 819, but she decided to let it become law by doing nothing.

The bill's passage in June triggered nationwide scorn by those who argued that the state was deliberately blinding itself to the effects of climate change.  In a segment on the Colbert Report, comedian Stephen Colbert mocked North Carolina lawmakers' efforts as an attempt to outlaw science.

"If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal.  Problem solved," he joked.

The law, which began as a routine regulation on development permits but quickly grew controversial after the sea-level provision was added, restricts all sea-level predictions used to guide state policies for the next four years to those based on "historical data."

Tom Thompson, president of NC-20, a coastal development group and a key supporter of the law, said the science used to make the 39-inch prediction was flawed, and added that the CRC failed to consider the economic consequences of preparing the coast for a one-meter rise in sea level, under which up to 2,000 square miles would be threatened.

A projection map showing land along the coast underwater would place the permits of many planned development projects in jeopardy.  Numerous new flood zone areas would have to be drawn, new waste treatment plants would have to be built, and roads would have to be elevated.  The endeavor would cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, Thompson said.

"I don't want to say they're being dishonest, but they're pulling data out of their hip pocket that ain't working," he said of the commission panel that issued the prediction, the middle in a range of three predictions.

Thompson, who denies global warming, said the prediction was based on measurements at a point on the North Carolina coast that is unrepresentative of the rest of the coast.

But the costs Thompson decries as wasteful are to the law's opponents a necessary pill the state must swallow if it is going to face up to the challenge of protecting the coast from the effects of climate change.

State Rep. Deborah Ross, a forceful critic of the bill, compared it to burying one's "head in the sand."

"I go to the doctor every year.  If I'm not fine, I'd rather know now than in four years," said Ross, a Democrat who represents inland Greensboro, N.C., but owns property on the coast.  "This is like going to the doctor and saying you're not going to get a test on a problem."

Its supporters counter that the law does not force the state to close its eyes to reality, but rather to base policy on more than a single model that produced what they believe are extreme results.

Republican State Rep. Pat McElraft, who drafted the law, called the law a "breather" that allows the state to "step back" and continue studying sea-level rise for the next several years with the goal of achieving a more accurate prediction model.

"Most of the environmental side say we're ignoring science, but the bill actually asks for more science," she said.  "We're not ignoring science, we're asking for the best science possible, the best extrapolation possible, looking at the historical data also.  We just need to make sure that we're getting the proper answers."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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