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Policy and Regulations: North Carolina and Sea Level

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 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.

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