I sit at the Carrboro Really Free Market, on the first caturday in July. I sit in the shade and the banners are blowing lazily in the breeze; still it’s nearly 100 degrees; the humidity jacks it up to 103, and the breeze is welcome but ineffectual. Air quality is ‘Orange’: ozone levels ‘may approach or exceed unhealthy standards.’ A parade is planned but only a handful want to move; I’m definitely not going back out. I keep a cold pack in my bag to refridgerate my computer, but I worry that the condensation from the humid air will offset the benefits of a cool processor. Whatever; I need chill tunes if I’m going to bike around in this weather.
A constant source of frustration for me is communicating the local importance of global problems. Climate change is real, and it’s serious – but at the same time it can be intangible and diffuse. I live in the North Carolina piedmont, hours away from the beach. I can explain to my neighbors that ocean acidification is a serious problem, that the demise of coral reefs would mean the loss of food and resources for the third world. But even if they believe me, even if they agree that it’s bad news, it can still be hard to see how global warming effects them personally, as a homeowner, a farmer, a pet owner or the parent of a young child, a worker with a daily commute. How does carbon dioxide pollution impact North Carolina and beyond?
Let’s start at the beach. An obvious problem here is rising sea levels. As the ocean heats up, it expands; as ice heats up, it melts and drains into the sea (or, it calves, falls into the sea, and then melts). This causes a slow but steady rise in sea level. Sea level is predicted to rise by a meter (maybe more) over the 21st century, and 4-6 m over the next few centuries. This is bad news bears – in many coastal counties, more than 10% of the population lives within a meter of high tide. The threat to homes and businesses is worsened by storm surges, which will also be higher as the seas rise [Strauss 2012]. North Carolina has a unique relationship with sea level rise. The coastal salt marshes have recorded 2,100 years of sea level history in their smelly mucky sediments; the ocean stayed relatively stable up until about 1880, when it began to creep upwards. The average rate of sea level rise for the NC coast over the 20th century was ‘greater than any other persistent, century-scale trend’ in the marsh’s memory. During this time period, the seas rose 3.5 times faster than they did even during the Medieval Warm Period, and regional sea level rose faster than model predictions over the 20th century (though the uncertainties involved overlap.) [Kemp et al. 2011]
But what’s really special is the state legislature’s reaction to the rising tide. This June, the NC Senate infamously outlawed the use of accelerating sea level scenarios in planning urban development. The usual astroturfing seems to be at play: the money trail for this legislation leads back to the Locke Foundation; spokespeople and nonprofits proliferate to establish a consent factory. These hijinks are as cynical as they are asinine: not only is global sea level rise accelerating [Church & White 2006], but North Carolina is at the southern end of a ‘hotspot’ where the sea is rising 3-4 times as fast as the global average, [Sallenger et al. 2012] putting its coastline at exceptional risk. The legislation is also a lovely inversion on a popular skuptik trope, that of an authoritarian scientific Orthodoxy dictating Truth and squelching dissidents. In this case, it’s the state government which has declared which climatic scenarios are kosher and which are thought crimes, favoring the least alarming. The proposed law would not merely declare what course sea level rise will take in the years to come, but also prohibit state planning agencies from considering alternatives. Not content to legislate straight marriage as the only valid relationship, the Old North State is considering straight lines as the only acceptable graph.
“You need to move indoors right now.”
It’s Friday night, 29 June, and forecasts of a sweltering weekend have already started to come true. I am sifting through hardware at work when the power goes out. Continue reading