Another stupid piece of antiscientific legislation: sea-level rise

What’s worse than legislating the size of a soda cup? Legislating the scientific facts, of course.  In 1897, the Indiana state legislature tried to pass a bill restricting the value of pi to one of three numbers, none of them the real value of pi.

That bill didn’t pass, but one equally stupid is under consideration by the state legislature of North Carolina.  It mandates the way that scientists are to calculate the rate of sea-level rise due to global warming. Replacement House Bill 819 requires that there be only one way to calculate sea-level increase: by linear extrapolation of the increase since 1900.  Here’s the relevant portion of the bill:

The problem is that sea level isn’t supposed to rise linearly with time. As Scott Huler’s Plugged In site at Scientific American notes (link above):

It goes on, but there’s the core: North Carolina legislators have decided that the way to make exponential increases in sea level rise – caused by those inconvenient feedback loops we keep hearing about from scientists – go away is to make it against the law to extrapolate exponential; we can only extrapolate along a line predicted by previous sea level rises.

Which, yes, is exactly like saying, do not predict tomorrow’s weather based on radar images of a hurricane swirling offshore, moving west towards us with 60-mph winds and ten inches of rain. Predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather with gentle breezes towards the east. Don’t use radar and barometers; use the Farmer’s Almanac and what grandpa remembers.

So what does the linear extrapolation yield? A rise of less than 16 inches by the end of this century. That’s far less than what the real data tell us, which suggest a more-than-linear increase: to about one meter.

But while the rising sea may engender emotion, it exists in a world of fact, of measurable evidence and predictable results, where scientists using their best methods have agreed on a reasonable – and conservative – estimate of a meter or more of rising seas in the coming century. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a hesitant estimate of up to 59 centimeters of rise —but even two years later that estimate already appeared low and scientists began to expect a rise of a meter or more.

No matter in North Carolina. We’ve got resorts to build and we don’t care what the rest of the ocean does – our sea isn’t going to rise by more than 15.6 inches. Because otherwise it’s against the law.

An article in the Charlotte [North Carolina] Observer suggests that economic forces are behind this change:

The calculation [of a 1-meter rise], prepared for the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, was intended to help the state plan for rising water that could threaten 2,000 square miles. Critics say it could thwart economic development on just as large a scale.

A coastal economic development group called NC-20 attacked the report, insisting the scientific research it cited is flawed. The science panel last month confirmed its findings, recommending that they be reassessed every five years.

But NC-20, named for the 20 coastal counties, appears to be winning its campaign to undermine them.

The Coastal Resources Commission agreed to delete references to planning benchmarks – such as the 1-meter prediction – and new development standards for areas likely to be inundated.

The N.C. Division of Emergency Management, which is using a $5 million federal grant to analyze the impact of rising water, lowered its worst-case scenario from 1 meter to 15 inches by 2100.

Don’t like the science? Ignore it.  But, as the old saying goes, “You can’t fool Mother Nature.” Nor can you legislate her away.


  1. Dominic
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    Who said you cannot out-Canute Canute?

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

      Canute was apparently staging a political stunt. Rendering homage to the king who controlled heaven and earth by means of “eternal laws” – as he is reputed to have said.

      After the sea ignored his command he is supposed to have removed his crown and placed it above a picture of the crucified Christ for the rest of his reign. As a viking invader ruling a Christian country with an iron fist the story has a certain plausibility.

      If true then Canute knew that he was going to get wet. I wonder if these latter day Canutes know it too? Maybe they calculate by the time it happens they will have taken the money and run.

      Or maybe they are really are stupid enough to think that they can stop the sea from rising by passing a law.

      • Leigh Jackson
        Posted June 2, 2012 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        Mistake: Canute was a Dane not a viking.

  2. Posted June 1, 2012 at 6:39 am | Permalink

    “That’s far less than what a linear calculation yields”

    Jerry, you must have meant “exponential”, not “linear”, here.

  3. Posted June 1, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    NC legislators are being lazy. If they think this will work, they should get off their butts and pass laws against cancer, poverty, childhood hunger, and car accidents. Think of all the problems they could fix by just saying it’s against the law for those problems to be real!

  4. Kevin
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    What morons. The coastal communities would be better served (as in get more tax dollars to study and overcome the issue) by having a higher estimate, rather than a lower one.

    Of course, a meter rise in sea level will inundate houses along the Outer Banks no matter what the legislature decides.

    • eric
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Taking more money out of the state coffers is not what they mean by “better served.”

      What they probably mean is “increase market demand and property values for beach front properties.”

      So, Jerry gets one thing slightly wrong. The state legislature is not trying to fool mother nature; they’re trying to fool potential investors.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted June 1, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        The state legislature is not trying to fool mother nature; they’re trying to fool potential investors.


  5. onkelbob
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    It is my understanding that Canute was trying to show that he was surrounded by toadies and lick-spittles by commanding the tides to stay. It was his advisers who told him he could command the sea (much like the NC legislature here) when he knew that to be false.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      Not in the earliest versions – in fact there was a religious element to the fable – Canute (also Cnut) was saying that he was not as powerful as his god.

  6. MAUCH
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    North Carolina doesn’t need no facts. For years they have done just fine with building in coastal areas in danger of flooding. The best part though is that after every disaster they get that great windfall of receiving federal grants to rebuild their coastlines.

    • Dominic
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:28 am | Permalink


    • gluonspring
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Sounds like a cunning plan to me. Maybe they aren’t stupid.

  7. steve oberski
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Well if you think that praying will cure cancer and beatings will purge the gay out of your children then thinking you can legislate the effects of global warming out of existence is entirely consistent with this mindset.

  8. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    It is a risible scam.

    NC would be better served with a bill against politicians making bills in bad faith.

    • Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

      Bad Faith. There’s a lot of it going around.

  9. stevenjohnson
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    It seems overly generous to dub this legislation “stupid.” I’m pretty sure that pretty much everyone supporting this legislation knows that it is designed to promote profitable development in lands destined to be drowned, a criminally irresponsible act. I suppose they rationalize it along the lines that scientists are just stupid and you have to do what it takes to keep the idiots from doing real harm to business.

    Incidentally, the infamous Indiana pi law always seemed to me to be a cruelly revelatory jape by its proposer at his (?) Bible-believing comrades. The bronze “sea” in the Temple was supposed to be round and we are told specifically that the circumference is three times the diameter. If Genesis is good cosmology, surely Kings is good math. So, vote for pi=3 if you believe in the Bible!

  10. Kevin Alexander
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Actually the bill makes perfect sense. By commanding that the sea not rise then short term property values are maintained.
    In the long term? What long term? Jesus is coming!!

  11. Rob
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    If someone acts on the mandated projection and there’s problems, can they sue the legislature?

  12. yesmyliege
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    “The N.C. Division of Emergency Management, which is using a $5 million federal grant to analyze the impact of rising water, lowered its worst-case scenario from 1 meter to 15 inches by 2100.”

    15 inches!

    James Hanson predicts a business-as-usual rise of 17 feet by century end. Somehow, I think Dr Hanson has a better grasp of the situation.

    Jeesum crowbar, I would so dearly love to see the national conversation not be about what deniers and idiots contest, but rather be about what can be done to prosecute disinformation propagandists for crimes against humanity, and whether or not martial law should be invoked to solve this slaughter-in-slow-motion of humanity, species and civilization as we know it.

    We just hit 400 ppm CO2 at the poles. It is getting close to Game Over, folks. Martial law is something that needs to be discussed.

    • raven
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Hanson is an outlier point here.

      The latest estimates I’ve seen are a sea level rise of 3-6 feet by 2100 being most probable.

      The melting of arctic and antarctic sea ice isn’t going to contribute much. The floating ice displaces almost its volume in water.

      The main drivers will be melting of land ice, glaciers and ice caps. Increasing sea temperatures making the volume rise, and, as it is turning out pumping of ground water and irrigation.

      • yesmyliege
        Posted June 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        The question isn’t if Hanson is an outlier, the question is if he will be right. While it is true that he is an outlier, what you will find is that all the more conservative estimates do not take certain positive drivers into effect.

        The man has the best track record in the business, and he has reached the point in his career and life where he is not afraid to call it like he sees it, as opposed to being deathly fearful of overstating even the smallest point.

      • Ichthyic
        Posted June 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        The melting of arctic and antarctic sea ice isn’t going to contribute much.

        uh, arctic? no.


        that ice is also covering a VERY large landmass, please don’t forget.

        • raven
          Posted June 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

          that ice is also covering a VERY large landmass, please don’t forget.

          I didn’t forget.

          The ice in Antarctica referred to was sea ice, the ice shelves which are floating on water. Ice floating on water displaces about its volume in water so when it melts, it doesn’t effect sea level much.

          Most of the ice in antarctica is the ice cap on land and it is melting too.

          • Achrachno
            Posted June 1, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

            And apparently as the sea ice melts, the ice on land will slide into the sea faster. Indirect effects?

            • Ichthyic
              Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

              that too.

          • Ichthyic
            Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

            The ice in Antarctica referred to was sea ice

            ah, absolutely correct, my misread.

            still, thought it worth mentioning, as people I run into often get confused about what the significance of ice in global warming is anyway.

            • Ichthyic
              Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

              not saying YOU did, mind, just saying many types of people read this stuff.

  13. FastLane
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    So, can we get the NC government buildings located to the coast? And move all of the legislators that voted for this bill. Give them beachfront property, exactly 15 inches above current sea level…..

  14. Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Just curious, but would anything built in those area be insurable? It seems to me that insurance companies would be very leery of the construction of any new buildings anywhere on the east coast.

    • Wojo
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

      I’m sure there is an insurance company run by a creationist that would, and probobly throw in a rapture rider along with it.

      If not I guess it opens a niche for creationsurance.

    • raven
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      Nothing built in an area that is scheduled to be submerged by rising oceans should be insurable. Which doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

      The insurance companies make money by not paying for claims and have strong incentives to not insure probable losses.

      I’m getting the feeling that somewhere down the line, this is going to end up costing someone a huge amount of money. It will probably be the federal and NC state taxpayers.

      We’ve seen this before. Privatize the profits, socialize the losses. In other words, it’s a bill to make money for private interests by stealing money from the taxpayers.

    • eric
      Posted June 1, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Of course those places are insurable! Have you read your own flood insurance policy? They already caveat away all the most likely scenarios. They’ll just add one more caveat. Something like: “*coverage excludes damage resulting from regular tides and rising sea levels.”

      Didn’t Homer Simpson buy a “no pay policy” back in one of the early seasons? That is what you’ll see here: the houses will get insured, but with clauses that prevent payment for the most likely events.

  15. Posted June 1, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Legislate THIS?

  16. Steve Smith
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    “Rates of sea-rise may be extrapolated linearly …”

    Just extrapolate on a log-log plot. Diffeomorphisms are still legal.

  17. Posted June 1, 2012 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    time to refuse any federal aid of any sort to North Carolina. We don’t want them being contaminated by any possible contact with icky science do we? Let the hypocrites secede and hopefully drown.

  18. Posted June 1, 2012 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the next step is to stipulate that bacterial population growths always have to be modeled using a linear function.

    Reminds me of the fairy tale of the king who tried to mandate the tide from never coming in.

  19. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Isn’t there a first amendment problem with this?

  20. Woof
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Damn reality and its well-known liberal bias!

  21. Grania Spingies
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I hope the voters kick them out of office so hard that they bounce.

  22. Posted June 1, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Ya can’t fix stupid.

  23. Lynn David
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Even before sea level rise due to global wasrming was considered, geological studies showed that the SE Atlantic coastline was undergoing marine transgression – ie, the shoreline was shifting landward. They’ll have a difficult time of it.

  24. procrastin8or
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    How can you have the laws of physics declared unconstitutional?

  25. pktom64
    Posted June 5, 2012 at 6:05 am | Permalink

    Stephen Colbert just made a segment about this very issue:

    The Word – Sink or Swim—sink-or-swim?xrs=share_copy

    You have to love the “The Larry King Theorem” vis-à-vis this legislation!!

  26. Schenck
    Posted June 6, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I just don’t understand these kind of people. They’re saying that the calculated sea-level rise would prohibit them from building in places likely to become submerged, so instead of just saying “fuck-it, we’re going to take our chances and build anyway”, they actually need to change the law so that you can’t come up with a prohibitive level of sea level rise?

    Obviously these guys understand what they’re doing, they want to be able to counter Sea level rise concerns against their construction project by being able to cite the state’s own (new, hobbled, madeup) estimates. SO they recognize that they’re willing to run the risk of the project being flooded, AND that the public wouldn’t want to run that risk, so they’re actively moving to lie to people in order for it to go through.

    These NC20 people are /criminals/. Every time you try to talk about the free market, people just have to point at these sort of thieves.

    In fact, I doubt that they’re even saying to themselves that it’s a /risk/ that the project will get submerged and destroyed, they probably think it’s inevitable, but that it’ll only happen after they’re deceased and unreachable!

  27. Joe
    Posted June 7, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    If the scientits are wrong, wouldn’t it be a safer bet to err on the side of caution. Call it Al Gore’s Wager.

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