In a recent episode of “The Colbert Report” the comedian Stephen Colbert mocked an issue he called “near and dear to my heart, and more importantly, near and dear to my beach house in South Carolina”– that is, the very real possibility of rising sea levels destroying coastal towns as a result of climate change:
Recently, Republican legislators from North Carolina have been circulating a bill mandating a formula that projects a sea level rise of – at most – 12 inches by 2100. Doesn’t sound too unreasonable, does it? That is, until more data is gathered. A North Carolinian state-appointed science panel reviewed the recent literature and reported that a one meter (39-inch) rise is likely by 2100. Many coastal studies experts think a level of 5 to 7 feet should be used, since you typically plan for the plausible worst-case scenario, especially with costly, long-term infrastructure and development projects.
So, in essence, legislators want to force North Carolina’s coastal inhabitants and developers to ignore scientific observations and science-based projections in planning for future sea level rise?
If nothing else, we have to give North Carolina’s GOP legislators credit for a) audacity, and b) their trailblazing approach in addressing climate change.
Stephen Colbert agrees:
“I think this is a brilliant solution. If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal – problem solved. Now, in fact, I think we should start applying this method to even more things that we don’t want to happen. For example, I don’t want to die. But the actuaries at my insurance company are convinced that it will happen – sometime in the next 50 years. However, if we consider only historical data, I’ve been alive my entire life – therefore, I always will be.”
Any and all jokes aside, this is not the time for bad policy, bad math, moving backwards, or ignoring our future. In 2000, FEMA issued a report stating that “Approximately 25 percent of homes and other structures within 500 feet of the U.S. coastline and the shorelines of the Great Lakes will fall victim to the effects of erosion within the next 60 years.” As then-FEMA Director James Lee Witt stated, “This report, Evaluation of Erosion Hazards, provides for the first time a comprehensive assessment of coastal erosion and its impact on people and property along our nation’s ocean and Great Lakes shorelines. The findings are sobering. If coastal development continues unabated and if sea levels rise as some scientists are predicting, the impact will be even worse.”
The 2000 report predicted that the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines will be especially hard-hit, which are expected to account for 60 percent of nationwide losses. This could cost U.S. homeowners more than a half billion dollars per year collectively, and additional development in high-erosion areas will lead to higher losses, according to the report.
Twelve years later, our lawmakers’ approach to addressing our coastal erosion problems involves legislation telling us to ignore it.
Rio+20 is around the corner, and U.S. lawmakers aren’t paying attention, participating, or even independently working to address climate change. This important summit should be marked by legislation and proposals that move us forward, not backward. Stephen Colbert uses humor to bring this issue to our attention, but we need more. Colbert brings up an important point – and it integrates really strongly into the Rio+20 issue briefs – Oceans (Issues Brief 4); Reducing disaster risk and building resilience (Issues Brief 8); Regional, national and local level governance for sustainable development (Issues Brief 10) – among others.
We need Rio+20 to succeed. We need compromise. We need solutions and results. We need to take climate change seriously. The hopeful optimist in me sincerely hopes that world leaders, lawmakers and changemakers who will be in Rio de Janeiro this week plant the seeds of a sustainable-environment revolution.
So, are we going to sink, swim, or do something about it?
Sherry Hakimi is a 2012 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Master in Public Policy Program.