King Canute of North Carolina

I once heard a story about how Alabama tried to legislate that the mathematical constant of pi should be rounded down to exactly 3. I always discounted it as some sort of urban legend, as even Republicans are so dumb as to believe that you can chance scientific facts by just passing a few laws….or are they?

North Carolina is now considering legislation with regard to the construction of coastal defenses that will only consider predictions of future sea level rise based on “historical” trends and ignore recent accelerations in sea level rise, i.e. that which is caused by global warming (which inevitably as Greenland and mountain glaciers continue to melt will lead to a further acceleration in rates of sea level rise). So the Republican strategy for dealing with climate change is again to bury their head in the sand (quite literally in this case!). Like King Canute, they seem to believe that you can control the seas by shear force of will.

And there was us chicken little’s in Europe thinking we had to “prepare” for, or attempt to mitigate climate change. When all we should have done was just ban it, and presumably burn all books on climatology! Not since Galileo’s time have we seen such willful ignorance.

Now without wadding into the whole climate change “debate”, its worth remembering that when it comes to flood defenses its always important to consider the worse case scenario. A flood barrier that is over-topped by just 1 inch still fails. Consequently this legalisation will leave areas of North Carolina’s coasts (well known for its beaches which draws in many tourists each year) inadequately defended to resist future storms. And the seas are rising, as you’ll see in this nice video from “climate crock”. I particularly like the bit where the Naval officer (hardly the fluffy tree hugger types) points out how important this is to the navy…given that they’re sort of based at sea level!

And there is an element of history repeating itself here. With Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The penny pinching Bush administration which was essentially allergic to “the environment” ignored the fact that a combination of sea level rise as well as pollution and development by the oil industry (notably the dredging of shipping channels through the Mississippi delta) had increased the vulnerability of the city to storms. Furthermore warmer waters makes for more violent hurricanes, which meant the assumed “100 year storm event” was probably more likely to be a 50 or 30 year storm. As a consequence New Orleans simply wasn’t ready for the storm that struck it.

It is ironic of course that North Carolina’s Republicans have tried to argue that they are “protecting business” with this ruling. I think business would rather they built adequate storm defences. There is after all not just the disruption caused by flooding to consider but also the issue of insurance.

While republicans may not “believe” in global warming (the same way they don’t “believe” in evolution yet still take the drugs developed by those atheist scientists often using the medical knowledge that came from it), the insurance industry certainly does. And they are still reeling from payouts post-Katrina and here in Europe from the many flooding incidents over the summer of 2007. As anyone who has renewed their insurance recently will know they are starting to get very picky about the issue of flood damage (I renewed recently and even thought I live on a hill and to the best of my knowledge in an area that’s never been flooded, they insisted on doing a background check of my area’s history to see if this was correct).

If you live in a flood prone area, then whether you will get flood insurance and how much it costs is often a factor related to the reliability of local flood defences. If the insurance industry deems them inadequate (which in the future they may well do to parts of NC), then they either will hike up you’re premium to eye-watering levels, or they simply won’t give you insurance at all. And the business costs of that are high. Post-Katrina a number of home owners who either found themselves with too low a payout to replace or repair their house or were subsequently told they would not be insured in future and saw the value of their property plummet. So business is certainly not being “protected” by this legalisation, instead their being encouraged to move out of state.

And at the end of the day, climate change mitigation is about “risk management”. Yes there is a tiny change it might be down to natural variation. Or it could be due to carbon emissions, but something else will come along in the next few decades and start cooling the planet and offset it all. But blindly assuming this is the case represents gambling on the science being wrong, and the lesson of history are that people who bet against science tend to loose…badly!

I’m not sure if Republican’s remember the biblical parable of the guy who built his house on sand. And perish the thought of what will happen to the US if Romney takes over in October. No doubt he’ll be launching airstrikes against a future Hurricane, or threatening it with sanctions.


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