Dr. Ricky Rood's Climate Change Blog

North Carolina's Friendly Mountain Breezes, Sandy Beaches and Sea-Level Rise

By: RickyRood, 5:08 AM GMT on June 30, 2014

North Carolina's Friendly Mountain Breezes, Sandy Beaches and Sea-Level Rise

In the last entry, I promised to write more about sea-level rise on the East Coast of the U.S. My motivation is, partially, the North Carolina General Assembly putting a moratorium on rules, plans and policies that were based on the projections of greater sea-level rise. The NC Coastal Resources Commission was directed to provide a sea-level projection to be used by planners. Time marches forward and that commission needs to make a report in 2016.

Another motivation for wanting to revisit North Carolina’s position on sea-level rise is a recent article in the Washington Post on Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk is just north of the North Carolina border. Norfolk is the home of the Naval Shipyard. The Navy has long recognized the vulnerability of their facility to rising sea levels, and this concern reaches throughout the community and the region. (Also NPR story on Norfolk)

Let’s start with North Carolina. There are a growing number of news stories about the state’s approach to sea-level rise. At this point, many of the stories are about whom to place on the NC Coastal Resources Commission. Frank Gorman III has been appointed chairman of the commission. Gorman has so far been credited with bringing order to chaos. He works in the fossil fuel industry, lives on the coast and is widely viewed as taking knowledge-based positions. Of note, he has focused the mission of the commission on the next 30 years. With a focus on 30 years, he removes the arguments about the rate of climate change because it takes 30 years or more for the different projections to diverge. (2014 update of the North Carolina story)

Much of the controversy in North Carolina started when it defined a planning number of 39 inches (1 meter). Such a high number is in the middle of the range of projections in reports such as the technical report on sea-level rise for the National Climate Assessment, yet few if any other states had chosen such a high figure for planning. By limiting the time span for consideration to the next 30 years, the 8-inch projections fall into a credible range. At 30 years, current knowledge suggests that sea-level rise will be accelerating. Thirty years is a short planning horizon for towns and counties and states. Is it responsible or legal to put blinders on our knowledge? What about the precedent of legislatively prescribing that which is outside of the control of legislation? Thirty years is politically expedient, and perhaps the limited guideline allows discussion that is otherwise not possible, but if planning follows it limits strictly, decisions will be made in denial of likely reality.

Turning to Norfolk. In late 2012, a team led by Adam Parris published a report Global Sea Level Rise Scenarios or the United State National Climate Assessment. Citing the Parris et al. report as the most appropriate for planning, the Virginia Institute for Marine Sciences submitted the Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia to the Virginia General Assembly in January 2013. This report is full of maps investigating the impact of sea-level rise on communities on the Virginia coasts. The report concludes “Recurrent flooding is a significant issue in Virginia coastal localities and one that is predicted to become worse over reasonable planning horizons (20-50 years).” Further, “Review of global flood and sea level rise management strategies suggests that it is possible for Virginia to have an effective response to increasing flood issues BUT it takes time (20-30 years) to effectively plan and implement many of the adaptation strategies.”

Here is a figure from the report, which shows the increase in the number of hours per year that there is flooding at The Hague, a neighborhood on an inlet off of the Elizabeth River in Norfolk. There has been a steady increase since about 1980. Examination of the details of flooding reveals that there are factors other than sea-level rise at play, notably there is also some sinking of the land (subsidence). However, when the budget of all the factors that play into the level of water at the coastline are taken into account, there is little doubt that the rising sea is at the core of the changes. (Link to Sea Level Rise and Flooding Risk in Virginia, Sea Grant Law and Policy Journal, 2013)

Figure 1: Hours per year of flooding in Norfolk’s Hague neighborhood. From Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia

Returning to the article in the Washington Post on Norfolk, Virginia and sea-level rise, there are a number of adaptation decisions that have been made. Currently, as houses are being rebuilt after storms the foundations are being raised. The city requires foundations on new construction to be 3 feet above flood level (a number implicitly the 1 meter of the original North Carolina plan). There is increasing discussion of buying people out and moving roads. There are plans for floodgates to protect The Hague neighborhood. A plan from a Dutch consulting firm suggests a cost of one billion dollars to provide protection from a foot of sea-level rise. And, for this to be effective, there needs to be planning along the whole coast. Otherwise, the patchwork of planned and unplanned, protected and unprotected, places along the coast will make a policy and management nightmare.

The areas I have talked about here, the North Carolina and Virginia coasts, are areas where I have spent time. Much of my childhood was building and rebuilding home-contrived ways to protect our cabin on the Neuse River in North Carolina. One lesson you learn in this little world is that if you don’t have a plan up and down the shore, what you do is vulnerable to what your neighbors don’t do. They are vulnerable to what you do. One can’t adapt alone to 39 inches of sea-level rise. The scope of planning required, neighbors, cities, counties and states is daunting. Decisions will not be uniform. And to add to the challenge, if we plan for 30, 50 or 100 years, all of those plans have to anticipate that sea level will still be rising. Thinking of that meter of salty water in places I have lived and worked makes it crystal clear that we need to work for the best future rather than preservation of the past.


Presentation on Planning in Virginia Thanks to bappit.

Land Subsidence and Relative Sea-Level Rise in the Southern Chesapeake Bay Region Thanks to nymore

Climate Change News Climate Change Politics Climate Change

Updated: 3:19 PM GMT on July 03, 2014


Policy and Regulations: North Carolina and Sea Level

By: RickyRood, 4:25 PM GMT on June 23, 2014

Policy and Regulations: North Carolina and Sea Level

Back in 2012, I wrote a blog about the Dust Bowl and sea-level rise in North Carolina. As a North Carolina native who spent much time on the coast in my first 25 years, I wanted to return to what North Carolina lawmakers are doing about sea-level rise. The NC General Assembly placed itself out in front on the sea-level rise problem a couple of years ago, when it tried to manage sea-level rise by, saying, making sea-level rise illegal. Sea-level rise is not good for either new or old construction on the coast, so projections of sea-level rise of 39 inches (1 meter) were alarming to those with interests in coastal development. The idea was to limit projections of sea level to about 8 inches, which is far less threatening.

What North Carolina ended up doing was putting a moratorium on rules, plans and policies that were based on the projections of greater sea-level rise. The NC Coastal Resources Commission was directed to provide a sea-level projection to be used by planners. Time marches forward and that commission needs to make a report in 2016.

In the comments in the last blog, there was some discussion about what does Rood mean by policy. I want to take the opportunity offered by North Carolina’s policy and regulation makers to discuss this a little more fully. Of course, I make the disclaimer that I am not a political scientist, though some of my best co-authors are.

In my class, we introduce policy with a discussion of what do we mean by policy and what do we look for policy to do? Ten years ago when we talked about climate-change policy, we implicitly meant the Kyoto Protocol, or more generally the efforts to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is called mitigation, and even today, many implicitly mean mitigation policy when they talk about climate-change policy. Another type of policy is adaptation policy, which is setting the stage for adapting to climate change, for example, sea-level rise.

This still hasn’t answered the question of what I mean by policy. Policies align with what an organization wants to achieve. In class, we arrive at the conclusion that policy represents the values and goals of an organization - be it a company, a community, a nation or society as a whole. An example of policy that we hear about frequently is the policy of the Federal Reserve to manage inflation. The goal is to manage inflation, but the precise actions that are taken are not prescribed by some rule set, with failure to follow the rules leading to some prescribed punishment.

Regulations are more prescriptive. They are a type of rule that if broken leads to fines or other forms of punishment. Regulations are meant to put a limit on behavior by providing negative consequences for behavior that is defined as rule breaking, because the regulation is violated.

In mitigation policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol aimed to limit emissions as a whole. How the emissions were to be limited was not explicitly defined. The Kyoto Protocol was all about bringing market forces into the management of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, general rules might be set up for how much carbon dioxide all power plants would be allowed to emit. Some allowance would be portioned out on a power-plant-by-power-plant basis. A goal of reduced emissions would be set, requiring the group as a whole to reduce its emissions. Then if one power plant decided to convert to a cleaner fuel or more efficient burner, it could sell its reduction of emissions to a power plant that is less efficient or that decides to buy cheap, dirty fuel. Regulation, on the other hand, might define the absolute emissions allowed by each power plant. There would be punishment for exceeding those emissions. In this example, the policy approach provides flexibility to the power plant operators on how to meet their emission goals. In fact, if the broader policy allowed, for example, counting the amount of carbon dioxide stored in trees, the dirty power plant might be able to plant a bunch of trees or to buy a tract of forest and preserve it.

In this case, there would be a set of rules that are regulations to support the policy.

That was a bunch of words, and I might be smart to write a couple of shorter blogs than one of my 2000-word creatures. So let’s bring this back to North Carolina and sea level.

As best as I can tell, North Carolina’s legislators sought to pass a regulation that for the purpose of coastal planning and coastal management, the sea-level rise projections for the next century could not exceed those observed in the 20th century. This is planning policy.

I want to step back 50 years. Fifty years ago, I imagine that most planners would assume that sea level would remain the same in the next century as in the previous century. That is our climate would be the same; this sameness is called stationarity. In some arcane way, the extension of 20th century into the 21st century does recognize that the climate is changing. The use of the 20th century trends, 8 inches, assumes that how fast the climate is changing remains the same. That is, the trend is stationary. On the other hand, what if the legislature required that planning exercises use a two-meter sea-level rise? In that case, many would protest that climate-change projections were too strongly influencing policy decisions. The use of a 2-meter rise in planning would embrace the notion that the trend is accelerating.

What might be the consequences of the choice of a number to use in coastal planning? Ultimately, all planners will have to assume some number. Extending the 20th century numbers into the next century is a very low estimate. Such a decision places people at risk from already observed accelerating sea-level rise. If such a constraint was imposed on the insurance industry, then it would certainly motivate any legitimate insurance company to leave the market. This would lead to either uninsured coastal communities or bankruptcy-prone, state-backed insurance. The choice of a high number would be disruptive; it would lead to great changes in our coasts, perhaps, abandonment. People would worry that we are taking on excessive costs with benefit residing in an uncertain, too-distant future.

In the next entry, I will write more about what is happening on the East Coast of the U.S. and in North Carolina.


Figure 1: Cypress Knees on the shore of the Neuse River in North Carolina after Hurricane Floyd, 1999.

Climate Change News Climate Change Politics

Updated: 1:34 AM GMT on June 30, 2014


Coal, Electricity, Fracking, Carbon Dioxide and the EPA

By: RickyRood, 7:30 PM GMT on June 12, 2014

Coal, Electricity, Fracking, Carbon Dioxide and the EPA

Update on 20140623 EPA and carbon dioxide pollution (not specifically related to the clean power initiative discussed below).

When I first started to learn about climate-change policy, coal-burning power plants were always mentioned as logical, perhaps easy, targets for regulation and policy. The reasons are 1) coal is considered the most polluting of the classic fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas; 2) power plants are big, stationary emitters. Since they are big and stationary, meaning they don’t move around like cars, they are easy targets to reduce emissions and measure the impact of any regulations. After many years, the recent actions (June 2, 2014) on clean power by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are the most substantive taken by the federal government to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

To be clear, this is an important step. It has been a long time coming. The regulations, advanced by the executive branch of the government, are politically difficult. The direct impact of the new regulations on climate change will be, most likely, small to modest.

It has been a long and frustrating road to get to these regulations. If you follow the thread through the blogs I list at the end, you’ll find that it starts with the Clean Air Act and relies on a 2007 Supreme Court decision that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide pollution. The Clean Air Act emerged during the 1960s, when air pollution and smog were notorious in the U.S. 1970 is often cited as the year of the Clean Air Act, which is also the time that the EPA became an executive regulatory agency. Richard Nixon is sometimes credited with both the Clean Air Act and forming the EPA. John Dingell had a large role in writing the act. Dingell, retiring this year as the longest-serving member of the U.S. House, is on record that the Clean Air Act is not the right way to address the emissions that cause climate change.

The Clean Air Act is, however, what we have. If you look through my previous analyses, the 2007 Supreme Court decision that allowed the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide provided the only realistic way that we have had in the U.S. for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. There was one brief flirtation with climate policy in 2009 with the Waxman-Markey bill, but that was never realistically going to happen and was so complex and convoluted it was difficult to imagine Waxman-Markey as more than symbolic.

The EPA is often called a regulatory agency. In general, environmental policy is more desirable than environmental regulation. Policy usually allows business and governments more flexibility in how they meet the goals of the policy. Regulation is more prescriptive and relies on rules and fines for violations. The implementation of the clean-power carbon dioxide pollution standards allows the flexibility for states to choose how they will meet the goals.

It is interesting to think about the opportunities that allowed the use of the EPA to address carbon dioxide pollution at this time. After the EPA was judged to have the power to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, the Bush administration did not move forward. In the first term of the Obama administration, the economic and political costs were too high. The political opposition was bipartisan, with both Democrats and Republicans in energy-producing, especially coal-producing, states opposing the EPA action. This bipartisan opposition remains, though it is either quieter or less consequential, now, in 2014.

Another opportunity that eased the use of the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide pollution comes with increased natural gas production. Hydraulic fracturing has led to cheaper natural gas and increased supplies of oil. Already existing regulations on pollutants such as sulfur (think, acid rain) increase the expense of coal. Therefore, the costs to modernize coal burners and cheaper natural gas were already causing coal to be replaced by natural gas. Therefore, we were on our way to meeting the goals of the new regulation. That makes it simpler to put the seal on a policy that rewards this trend.

There are other opportunities at play. If you look at the numbers, then the goals of regulations are in line with the commitments the U.S. has made in the series of United Nations Conferences of the Parties starting in 2009. These commitments are considered by many to be weak, symbolic and, perhaps, possible. Nevertheless, the new regulations do place the U.S. in the position of increased credibility on the international level. Ben Adler at grist.com does a nice analysis of how Obama’s decision places us at odds with our traditional low energy-efficiency economy friends Australia and Canada. Australia and Canada have been very aggressively distancing themselves from reducing carbon emissions. After the EPA announcement, China quickly followed with they, too, would consider a cap on emissions. It has been my (perhaps crazy) opinion that on the order of the next 10 years, China would make carbon emissions a trade issue. Therefore, the U.S. does obtain advantage with this announcement. Thomas Friedman at the NY Times maintains that the U.S. remains in a leadership position, and if the U.S. does move on climate change, then the world will follow.

What about the politics in the U.S.? By doing this now, it will be implemented before the president leaves office. That will make it more difficult to undo. The announcement focuses more on health impacts and increasing damage from floods and storms than on climate change. There is no doubt that some Democrats, for example Mary Landrieu running for re-election to the Senate, are attacking the regulation. On the other hand, some Republicans, for example Christine Todd Whitman, who are in a position to speak without the encumbrance of partisan politics are talking about the need for new Republican strategies on climate change. There is also the likelihood that President Obama is looking at credibility and the legacy that we have taken a real step on climate change. Plus, in reality the public perception of climate change is only a marginal political issue – it’s usually at the bottom of environmental concerns – the political cost might be low.

The clean power regulations to be managed by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are an important, credible and possible step. To me, while I can calmly describe what seems like the process we use to develop environmental policy, the progress we make is piecemeal and frustrating. We have marched through this process of environmental damage, regulation and policy time and time again. In fact, that’s how the Clean Air Act came to be. It’s only through a broad interpretation of the Clean Air Act that we have found a litigious way forward. This is not a substitute for climate-change policy, which must, ultimately, be integrated into energy systems, land-use policy and behavior.


Over the past few years I have written a number of blogs about energy and role of the EPA. Here are some of the links that would provide more background information.

No Energy Policy and Even Less Climate Policy

We Like to Burn Things

Energy Security: All the Oil We Want

Election Eve: Climate Science and the 2012 Election

Polluting Carbon Dioxide

Greenhouse Gases Climate Change News Climate Change

Updated: 8:12 PM GMT on June 23, 2014


About RickyRood

I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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