E minus 22: Making sense of the debate about sea level rise

Several years ago, SAFE posted a hypothetical debate about how to bring down gasoline prices at the pump.  Our idea was to relax restrictions on US oil production and thereby boost supply; big government advocates (Side A) would predictably argue otherwise.  Tip for fiscal visionaries: be persistent or get run over, 4/25/11.

Your intellectual opponents will change the subject, shift the blame, and/or urge you to shut up.  They will, in other words, say almost anything except that you have made a valid point that should be considered, accepted, and acted on.

Sure enough, Side A suggested policies designed to constrain demand, shift to alternative (and higher cost) energy sources, punish the oil companies for purported profiteering, and avert threats to wildlife as a result of drilling in new areas.

The fiscal visionary knocked down one argument after another and ended by saying it was time to “talk about relaxing the current restrictions that have been impeding US oil production for the past four decades” and “if we still can’t agree, maybe that is what elections are for.”
   
Our position has been vindicated since 2011, and it happened faster than we were expecting.  Major gains in US oil production have resulted from the fracking boom, contributing to lower prices at the pump.  US gas production is also up, which has accelerated the retirement or conversion of coal power plants (a prime goal for environmentalists although they still aren’t satisfied).  Free enterprise achieved these results, but at least the government managed to stay out of the way.  Good show!

Now here is another issue, the implications of sea level rise (SLR) – both globally and along the Mid-Atlantic coast.  Side A insists that SLR is a major threat to low-lying Delaware, as will be seen, and skeptics should be prepared for a long and hard battle.  Instead of a hypothetical debate this time, we’ll recap some of the actual conversation in the First State.

A. Background – Among those actively concerned about SLR are environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Delaware’s largest newspaper (the News Journal), academia (notably the University of Delaware), government agencies including Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), and most of the political leaders in the state.  SLR is often attributed to global warming, rather than the sinking of coastal land, and SLR alarmists typically subscribe to the manmade global warming (MMGW) theory that the burning of fossil fuels is increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere with potentially disastrous consequences.

A handful of conservative groups, e.g., SAFE, Climate Common Sense, and the Positive Growth Alliance, and a few scientists, journalists, and political leaders see things differently.  Our side views the MMGW theory as unproven, considers predictions of future SLR exaggerated, and suspects that global warming/SLR alarmists may have ulterior motives, e.g., expansion of the government and doing favors for alternative energy firms.

In August 2012, the News Journal ran a series of articles and hosted a public forum on SLR.  SAFE posted a review that suggested the articles/forum had exaggerated the SLR threat, ignored its primary cause (coastal land in the region is sinking), and offered “solutions” without any regard for practicality.  Don’t panic about sea level rise,
8/27/12.

Since 2012, the News Journal has continued to run alarmist news reports on SLR and global warming.  It has also published letters and columns (commendably representing both sides of the argument).

Established by DNREC in 2010, the Sea Level Advisory Committee held numerous meetings, conducted a series of public engagement sessions, and proposed a SLR adaptation plan for Delaware.  The Committee’s final report, with 55 recommendations, was published in October 2013.
http://tinyurl.com/kyabwhv (download report as PDF).

Most of the recommendations in the report are quite general – e.g., 3.3 “consider use of a Transfer of Development Rights tool to direct future growth away from vulnerable areas” or 3.5 “incorporate sea level rise into the Transportation Operations Management Plan.” The effects will likely depend on the assumed magnitude of future SLR.
 
In this regard, the report recites expectations that the historic rate of SLR – about a foot per century as measured by the long-term tide gauge in Lewes – will accelerate in coming decades “due to climate change which is expected to increase the rates of glacier and ice sheet melt as well as rates of ocean water expansion.”  According to a DNREC technical workgroup established in 2009, such acceleration could “cause the level of Delaware’s oceans, bays and tidal rivers to rise between [1.6 feet and 4.9 feet above their present levels]” by 2100.

Count Rich Collins of the Positive Growth Alliance as a skeptic.  His 8/14/13 letter (included in Appendix B) suggests that these global warming and SLR projections are unreliable and that a policy of “remaining flexible and taking action when the need clearly presented itself” would make more sense.

Daily, there are new reports coming out, including from the UN, that the earth has not warmed for approximately 15 years.  In fact, climate models are being revised to try and accommodate this apparently unexpected situation.  It is no surprise to us that 100-year climate predictions based on computer models are difficult.  What is surprising is that our small state has chosen to put its economy at risk on the basis of such predictions.

The Sea Level Advisory Committee had not been charged with implementation, and it was disbanded after completing the adaptation plan.  Follow-up will be up to the normal instrumentalities of the federal, state and local governments, with no clear consensus as to the path forward.

B. Ongoing discussion – The News Journal recently ran another story in its seemingly endless reporting on SLR, which once again painted this phenomenon as a major threat. Dire flood warning: Report says Delaware will soon see worse, more frequent flooding, Jeff Montgomery & Molly Murray, 9/16/14.

The current “news” is a report by a national environmental group called Climate Central to the effect that SLR will put at risk “hundreds of thousands of people, billions of dollars in property and roads, schools and power plants.” 

The report includes “an interactive, online mapping tool that allows home and business owners and state and local planners to assess the localized impacts of climate change, find the most vulnerable citizens and plan for the future.” Susan Love, a coastal programs planner with DNREC, called the online mapping feature “a national tool” and stressed the importance of seeing SLR as a national issue.

“The first rule in risk mitigation is that you make contingency plans for worst-case scenarios,” adds Penn State professor Michael Mann, who cites estimates that “increases along the mid- Atlantic will exceed 6 feet [by ??].” 


Wendy Davis of UD is already working with coastal officials to develop hazard mitigation plans. Planning for the future needs to start now, she says, because “a significant amount of time is required” to change public attitudes, build consensus, develop a plan and reach long-term goals.  “Being proactive now simply makes sense. *** There’s no benefit from waiting to see” what happens.


John Greer, P.E., of Climate Common Sense wrote to the editor re the NJ story.  Soberly fact-based and logical, his letter attacked the conclusion that SLR along the Delaware coast is likely to accelerate from the historical rate of about one foot per century to the dramatically higher rates being cited. Depend on real science, not propaganda [NJ’s title], 9/30/14.
http://tinyurl.com/kppak8e

The News Journal misinforms readers by gross exaggerations regarding sea level rise and not saying what sea level rise has actually been.  The paper has relied on misinformation from environmental groups instead of information from scientific journals.


A recent article, “Dire Flood Warning” shows a map of Wilmington with areas flooded by a 9-foot sea level rise in 20 years based on a report by Climate Central, a rate rise of 45 feet per 100 years. Climate Central’s website claims they do “data driven research,” that sea level rise [global average] has risen 8 inches since 1880 “because of global warming,” and that “the rate of rise is accelerating.” 


But the actual data show that sea level rise at Lewes, Delaware, has only been about 1 foot per 100 years and is not accelerating.  At this rate, sea level would rise less than 3 inches in 20 years, not 9 feet.


A report, “Tide gauge location and the measurement of global sea level rise,” in the May 2014 issue of the journal Environmental and Ecological Statistics, statistically examined data from over 1,000 tide gauges worldwide, with data from 1807 to 2010.  They found that the average sea level rose only about 4 inches per 100 years over this time and found no evidence of sea level rise acceleration.


The authors also found that sea level rise is local rather than global, and concentrated in a few areas including the Atlantic coast of the US.  Sea levels were not changing in 61 percent of tide gauge locations, rising in 35 percent of locations, and even falling in 4 percent of locations.


The local nature and lack of acceleration indicates that relative sea level change is primarily the result of land height changes, not global warming which would result in more universal sea level rise.  In the Atlantic coast area, the land is thought to be sinking slowly due to post-glacial rebound – look it up.


Before deciding on policy, we should better understand the real science of sea level change and not be misled by grossly false information.


It seemed unlikely that the other side would let this viewpoint stand unanswered, although it wasn’t clear what they could say in rebuttal.  Sure enough, a letter from a member of the former Sea Level Rise Advisory Committee was soon published.  The facts about sea-level rise, Chad Tolman,
10/7/14

This response cites a page on Climate Central’s website that “clearly says the projected [SLR for Delaware] by 2050 is 14 inches.”  So “where the author got 9 feet in 20 years is a mystery” and “perhaps he didn’t carefully read or understand the News Journal article or the Climate Central report.”


Kudos to the News Journal for doing “an outstanding job of reporting on Delaware’s vulnerability to [SLR] and bringing it to the attention of the public.”


A mystery, really? The NJ story had cited a 6-foot SLR figure (albeit by an unspecified date), which Professor Michael Mann of Penn State had paired with the suggested need to make contingency plans for worst-case scenarios.

The story had also prominently displayed a map of flooding in the Wilmington area showing “value per acre inside areas with a 9-foot sea level rise,” which was said to indicate “what’s at risk in 20 years.”  Perhaps the presentation conflated SLR with the assumed surge from a future storm equivalent to the record Ash Wednesday storm in 1962 (Flooding in Delaware, National Weather Service.
http://tinyurl.com/krzgufs), but if so this was not made clear.

And if Climate Central was merely projecting 14 inches of SLR by 2050 (representing a tripling of the historical SLR rate), wasn’t their reported finding that SLR will put at risk “hundreds of thousands of people, billions of dollars in property and roads, schools and power plants” a bit exaggerated? 
Shortly thereafter, the News Journal doubled down with another news story along the lines that, far from merely being something to worry about in 20+ years, SLR is already a big problem. Del. coastal flood issues to get worse; Report says nuisance events will become even more common, Molly Murray,
10/9/14.

This story leads with a statement by state planner Susan Love to the effect that “over the last 30 days, there’s been minor flooding in low areas of Lewes six times.”  And according to a new Union of Concerned Scientists report issued on Wednesday, such nuisance flooding will reportedly “get worse in coastal areas along both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts over the next 15 and 30 years.” 


Although “the report doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know in Delaware,” Love is quoted, “it helps put a vision on the short term.”  (Thus, per UCS estimates, the incidence of nuisance flooding in Lewes will increase to 90 tidal flooding events by 2030 and more than 200 flooding events a year by 2045.) 


Among the difficult conversations that need to take place, according to Love, are the tradeoffs between allowing land development in vulnerable areas now (increasing tax base) and the future costs of bailing out landowners when flooding becomes “a regular event.” And alas, “most of Delaware’s coastal towns are small and don’t have the resources to hire a planner to help them prepare for the future.” 


Livening up the text are two pictures of a sign that has been erected in the Lewes area. It displays previous benchmark high tides from severe storms, topped by the 7.8 feet above mean sea level record set in 1962.  In one picture, the sign is sticking far above the floodwater during a storm in November 2009.  In the second, a scale has been added at the top of the sign showing hypothetical water levels in 2050 (assumes the 1962 storm plus 1.7 foot SLR), and two cases for 2100 (assumes the 1962 storm plus 3.2 foot SLR or alternatively 4.9 foot SLR)


C. Now what?
We have not convinced our intellectual opponents, obviously, nor have they convinced us.  But although it may just be our imagination, the general public seems to be swinging our way on this issue.  Why?  Official data show that the global warming trend stopped around 1998, and perhaps some people are beginning to notice that it’s not getting warmer and warmer as they were led to expect.

A majority of Americans continue to tell pollsters that global warming is happening, but political affiliation strongly influences the responses.  Thus, in one poll, 58% of Republicans (but only 11% of Democrats) characterized the MMGW theory as dishonest.  Poll: Majority of Republicans believe global warming a hoax, Ben Geman, The Hill, 4/3/13.
http://tinyurl.com/la9ypma

Judging from comments they have made, global warming alarmists may be nervous about the state of public opinion.  Climate change expert [Katharine Hayhoe]: public perception lags, Jeff Montgomery, News Journal,
12/10/13 .

According to Dr. Hayhoe, the “global science of human-caused climate” is getting better all the time, but the public’s understanding of the topic “is definitely a worry.”  In terms of scientific certainty we’re down to the decimal points, but “in public opinion, we could be advancing by tens of percent” through outreach and better communication.


Such worries may tempt SLR/global warming alarmists to cut corners and make attention-grabbing claims instead of seeking a better understanding of these phenomenon so that well-informed decisions can be made.  If and when they do so, our side should continue to call them on it.

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