SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Canutes of the Carolinas

by Donald Prothero, Jul 08 2012

When the news came across the internet, you read it in disbelief and your jaw dropped in amazement. I had to read it twice to make sure it was true. The North Carolina legislature had declared that sea level could not rise as much as scientists had been predicting! Reading the announcement immediately brought to mind the legendary English King Canute, who commanded the sea to stand still, or mad Roman Emperor Caligula, who similarly ranted at the ocean to obey his commands. The story became the laugh line of the press cycle, with the ridiculousness of the idea lampooned in media across the board. I had to double-check that it wasn’t a Poe or something from the satirical web journal The Onion, because it sounded more like a parody.

But it’s real, folks. The legislature has passed a bill forbidding the state to use the scientific predictions of accelerating sea level rise of up to a meter in the next century, and only consider historic rates of sea level rise, which amount to only 8 inches. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the ridiculous idea of legislating nature was paid by none other that Stephen Colbert, who (in his character as a brainless conservative) “applauded” the North Carolina legislature. As Colbert lampooned it on the June 4, 2012 edition of Colbert Report:

I think we should start applying this method to even more things 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 only consider historical data, I’ve been alive my entire life, therefore I always will be.

The question that immediately comes to mind is “Who do these folks think they are?” Apparently, the impetus behind this exercise in folly is a familiar one: the GOP legislators are being pressured by wealthy landowners and developers, who don’t want to consider the likely future. Why? Because their plans by coastal development might be halted by a set of rules based on scientific predictions of the future sea level rise, rather than wishful thinking. This reminds me of examples that I cited over and over again in my most recent book on geological disasters: people will do anything to deny the evidence that a disaster is coming just so they can live in risky places—and then, when the predicted disaster strikes, they expect the taxpayer to pick up the tab. They live in dangerous floodplains, then are wiped out again and again, but refuse to admit that “floodplains are for floods.” They build million-dollar mansions on crumbling sea cliffs or active landslides, then expect nature to stop moving the rocks so their property values are protected. In the Carolinas especially, they build on barrier islands, unaware or uninterested in the fact that every previous settlement on those islands has been wiped out by major hurricanes—indeed, the entire island is built of ancient hurricane deposits. Of course, rising sea level will inundate these same barrier islands, crowded with their multi-million-dollar resorts, even as the energy of a warming climate makes the likelihood of huge hurricanes worse.

As a geologist, it always amazes me at not only the stupidity of these people failing to listen to reasonable warnings of geologists and other scientists, but their arrogance and sense of entitlement that they can have whatever they want (especially if they are rich), no matter what happens with Mother Nature. But as historian Will Durant reminds us, “Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” Instead of wisely using the expertise of the scientific community, they simply declared that nature had to do what they wanted it to. What they should be doing is taking their scientists seriously and telling developers that building in certain areas is too risky and idiotic, and that they (rather than the taxes of the rest of us) should assume the risks and pay the costs if they were going to build in dangerous places. But no, it is apparently easier to deny science that to face it. In the case of the Carolinas, the scientists could not believe the arrogance of the legislators deciding they knew better than the people with the proper training to understand sea level rise. As Richard Schiffman wrote:

Why are these politicos forcing the hand of the scientists? That’s simple! Because North Carolina, home to Cape Hatteras and roughly two thousand square miles of low-lying coastlands, could stand to lose untold millions in developer dollars if the news about rising sea levels got out. Never mind that the news already is out. Never mind that continuing to build up this hurricane and storm-surge alley is inviting disaster—even at current sea-levels.

What’s proposed is just crazy for a state that used to be a leader in marine science,” East Carolina University geologist Stan Riggs who studies the evolution of the coast told the Observer. “You can’t legislate the ocean, and you can’t legislate storms.”

But apparently you can in North Carolina, which is bent burying its head in the sand, as far as climate change is concerned. If you don’t admit that you have a problem, maybe it will just go away. That seems to be the idea in North Carolina. The Observer reports that several local governments on the coast are not waiting for the legislature to act. They have already passed their own resolutions against sea-level rise policies.

Not to be outdone, a Virginia legislator refused to let the term “sea-level rise” to be used in a $50,000 study of coastal flooding because it was a “liberal code word”. Once again, these lawmakers have the arrogance to second-guess the wisdom of the scientific community, even though they have no scientific background themselves; they are simply puppets of their rich developer backers. This kind of arrogance extends all the way to the climate deniers in Congress.  On March 10, 2011, they set new lows for trying to redefine “greenhouse gases” to exclude carbon dioxide, methane, and all the other greenhouse gases that science has recognized. The situation was so ludicrous that Rep. Edward Markey (Democrat from Massachusetts) mocked them in a speech that shows just how scientifically literate somemembers of Congress really are:

Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to a bill that overturns the scientific finding that pollution is harming our people and our planet. However, I won’t physically rise, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating about the room. I won’t call for the sunlight of additional hearings, for fear that Republicans might excommunicate the finding that the Earth revolves around the sun. Instead, I’ll embody Newton’s third law of motion and be an equal and opposing force against this attack on science and on laws that will reduce America’s importation of foreign oil. This bill will live in the House while simultaneously being dead in the Senate. It will be a legislative Schrodinger’s cat killed by the quantum mechanics of the legislative process! Arbitrary rejection of scientific fact will not cause us to rise from our seats today. But with this bill, pollution levels will rise. Oil imports will rise. Temperatures will rise. And with that, I yield back the balance of my time. That is, unless a rejection of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is somewhere in the chair’s amendment pile.

All joking aside, there’s a serious issue here as well. Any time politicians or clerics or other non-scientists try to interfere with the discoveries of science, everyone loses. The great scientific advances of the “Arabic Golden Age” from 800-1100 A.D. died when extremist clerics enforced fundamentalism on the Muslim world. We are all familiar with the long rear-guard action of Christianity against first the Copernican system of the universe, and currently with the creationist attempts to deny the reality of evolution, cosmology, anthropology, and any other science that denies the literal interpretation of Genesis. Or take the infamous case of Trofim Lysenko, Stalin’s favorite scientist. Lysenko held almost absolute power over Soviet science from 1927 until 1964. Most modern historians of science consider him a mediocre geneticist who promoted ideas of how Lamarckian inheritance might improve Soviet crop yields and prevent famine. His experimental results were inconclusive or outright fraudulent, yet he told Stalin that he could produce incredible bounties of food. As a result, he became the most powerful figure in the Soviet scientific establishment, and conspired with Stalin to suppress Mendelian geneticists, who really did understand how inheritance worked. Most of them were killed outright, sent to concentration camps, or driven into exile, forever destroying the vitality and strength of Soviet genetics and biology. Soviet genetics fell decades behind that of the rest of the world until the 1960s, when Lysenko was finally denounced, his work discredited, and he died in disgrace. Millions of people died in frequent famines when his nonsensical ideas were applied to agriculture. No matter whether it is the classic Greek science, or Arabic science, or Soviet science, the conclusion is clear: science cannot be subservient to ideology, and scientists cannot be forced to distort their message or results in order to please the political or religious powers that be. Lysenko and Stalin did not believe in Mendelian genetics or Darwinian biology, and they murdered hundreds of legitimate scientists who had the temerity to disagree with them. Other regimes (such as the Nazis or the devout Muslims after 1100) have distorted science to support their ideas, but ultimately scientific reality must win.

18 Responses to “Canutes of the Carolinas”

  1. Max says:

    King Canute was apparently demonstrating that God was more powerful than the king, which is a message that might even resonate with Republican lawmakers.

    “when the predicted disaster strikes, they expect the taxpayer to pick up the tab.”

    When people hear that warnings of the disaster were ignored, they do get angry, though even this can get perverted, like when Italian scientists were sued for dismissing a pseudoscientist’s warnings of an earthquake.

  2. step back says:

    This move by the N.C. legislature is not as abnormal or as “crazy” as first it may seem.

    Indeed we all engage in similarly delusional behavior on an every day basis.

    Yes, I’m talking about “money” and how we all walk around believing it is “wealth”, it is legal tender and if, oh if we only had some more of that out-of-thin-air-created stuff we would all be far more “wealthy” than we are now.

    This is so because our brains have evolved to focus first and foremost on human-to-human interactions. Consideration of Mother Nature’s plans comes in as a second or even more distant concern. Accordingly, if you are heavily “invested” in seacoast “properties” (which, of course; you, and not Mother Nature “owns”) then making edicts about what is to happen with that “property” does not seem as abnormal or as crazed as hindsight may later tell us.

  3. James Robert Smith says:

    I have to live in this religion-crazed State. And you know what’s worse than North Carolina? South Carolina.

  4. MadScientist says:

    Oooh yeah – building on floodplains never fails to get me hopping mad, but I suspect that’s more ignorance rather than willful disregard of the facts, except where city/town governments are involved in which case it’s generally rank negligence. (Some flood plains are so damned huge that anyone living in the area really hasn’t got a choice – without digging a trench, how would you know you were on a flood plain when the area is flat as far as the eye can see.)

    I doubt that this is a law which can actually be enforced – the state may sure try, but as long as the courts are not overrun by yokels I can’t see how any judge would accept “the law says black is white” as legitimate. One thing about the US courts is that the truth is its own defense – so if you called someone a thief, for example, you’re not liable for slander or libel if that person were really a thief (and you can establish that); in some other parts of the world you could still be liable because someone claimed to have lost money as a result of you calling them a thief even though that person is a thief.

  5. MadScientist says:

    Oh – will the state sue god for making the sea levels rise? How do they plan to make him pay? Will they swap gods for one that may be benevolent after a catastrophe hits?

  6. d brown says:

    Nobody ever when broke or last a election under estimating the public. And we are all the public at times.

  7. Max says:

    Nassim Nicholas Taleb has crusaded against Value-at-Risk (VaR) models of financial risk because they don’t account for rare extreme events.

    “Furthermore, we need to examine the toxicity of models; financial regulators should have the same test as the Food and Drug Administration does. The promoter of the probability model must be able to show that no one will be harmed even if the event is rare. Alas, the history of medicine shows translational gaps, the lag between the discovery of harm and suspension of harmful practice, lasting up to 200 years in pre-modern medicine.”

  8. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    This kind of thinking is not limited to the examples cited. Just look at the slopes of just about every active volcano outside the polar regions.
    I have just finished reading “Seven Fires: The Urban Infernos That Reshaped America” by Peter Charles Hoffer. After every major urban fire, strict new fire prevention building codes are adopted. Soon after, those laws are repealed or ignored.
    It’s just so damn hard to convince people to forgo immediate profit when the certainty of future disaster doesn’t have a definite date attached.

  9. WScott says:

    Actually the floodplain issue is a (tentative) success story that offers a ray of hope. Briefly, FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program makes flood insurance available to landowners *IF* their state/county/city has adopted laws/codes restricting development in floodplains. Thus existing landowners are able (in many places, required) to insure themselves agains losses, with the provision that post-disaster redevelopment is restricted to non-residential uses. It’s becoming more and more widespread.
    Tales of people in floodplains rebuilding again and again at taxpayer expense are largely relics of the 70s and 80s.

  10. dave says:

    Didn’t Al Gore buy a huge beachfront place out in malibu? I guess he’s not so concerned about sea level rise either.

    • tmac57 says:

      Didn’t Al Gore buy a huge beachfront place out in malibu?

      Not that I am aware of.

      • Donald Prothero says:

        Even if he did, it would only be risky if his property is right on the beach. Most of Mailbu is about 50-100 feet above sea level on the 125,000 year old marine terrace, well out of reach of future sea level rise…

      • tmac57 says:

        His home that he purchased in 2010 is in the Montecito-area,which could also be well above sea level.
        But all of that aside,even if it was on the beach,it would not change the rate of sea level rise.Deniers are always looking for the ‘silver bullet point’ ™ that will deal a death blow to climate change (Hint: It ain’t gonna happen).They will fool some of the people some of the time,but you can’t fool Mother Nature.
        Note: If Gore’s heirs still have that home well into the future,and if it appears to be at risk…no problem! There will still be plenty of head-in-the-sand petro-dollar billionaires around who will still be denying the obvious.The Gores can sell it to them.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Congratulations. You just debunked the work of thousands of climatologists, and exposed the hoax for all to see! Al Gore, indeed.