Good News for North Carolina Coasts

Eric Panicco

April 18, 2016

Eric Panicco, a candidate for Master of Arts in Sustainability at Wake Forest University, is undertaking an independent study for CPR Member Scholar Sidney Shapiro.

On August 3 of last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Clean Power Plan. It was a historic moment for President Obama, one he commemorated by observing, "We're the first generation to feel climate change, and the last one that can do something about it."

Should it survive the inevitable court challenge launched within days of its release, the Clean Power Plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) as an important part of a strategy to mitigate the effects of climate change. However, because of the GHGs that humans have already released, we will have to address the effects of climate change that are already well underway. Mitigation efforts such as the Clean Power Plan are important to keep those effects to a minimum, but our regulatory agencies have an additional task when it comes to climate change: employing successful adaptation strategies.

The Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) is one such endeavor. Passed in 1972, the CZMA is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Like many pieces of federal legislation, it encourages a cooperative partnership among the federal, state, and local governments. In subsequent amendments 18 years later, Congress added this language: "Because global warming may result in a substantial sea level rise with serious adverse effects in the coastal zone, coastal states must anticipate and plan for such an occurrence."

In response to the original CZMA, North Carolina passed the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA) in 1974. It requires all 20 coastal counties of North Carolina to create and update a land-use plan and lays out requirements for those plans. There are also municipalities in these counties that opt to create their own land-use plans that satisfy CAMA requirements. This allows individual municipalities to create plans more specific to their own needs. Over the last couple decades, and especially in the last decade, more and more municipalities have been opting to write their own land-use plans to augment the county plans.

Because of two factors, the planning need is greater now than ever before. The first is in increased development, both along the coastline and elsewhere in these counties. Greater investment has led to greater interest in land-use management. The second is increased maintenance due to rising sea levels. A North Carolina highway near the ocean, for example, has been relocated and repaired several times over the course of its life. Yet, as the room for relocating westward is running out, bridges, ferries, and other alternatives are starting to become part of the conversation. 

Unfortunately in 2011, the North Carolina legislature required adaptation planning to use a historical approach to predict sea-level rise, which modeled a straight line on top of the sea-level rise over the past 100 years and used it to project the same linear rise into the future. The law prevented coastal communities from using the more accurate scientific predictions of accelerated sea-level rise. This is akin to projecting straight-line growth for a business that is beginning to expand and increase its revenue.

Fortunately, as of July 1, 2016, counties will no longer be forced to turn a blind eye to scientific consensus. Responding to adverse public reaction, the state legislature amended its previous legislation in 2012. Just last month, the Coastal Resources Commission delivered the final version of the Sea Level Rise Assessment Report to the Environmental Review Commission. In only a couple months, North Carolina's 20 coastal counties will be able to take these accelerated rates of sea-level rise into account when creating their land-use plans.

In the end, after a rocky start, science prevailed over politics in North Carolina.

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