By Wade Rawlins
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Lawmakers in North Carolina, which has a long Atlantic Ocean coastline and vast areas of low-lying land, voted on Tuesday to ignore studies predicting a rapid rise in sea level due to climate change and postpone planning for the consequences.
Opponents of the measure said it was a case of legislators "putting our heads in the sand" to avoid acknowledging the possible effects of global warming.
Backed by real estate developers, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a law requiring that projected rates of sea level rise be calculated on historical trends and not include accelerated rates of increase.
North Carolina is among the state's most vulnerable to sea level rise with its long coastline and thousands of square miles of low-lying land. A 2012 study by the U.S. Geological Survey says sea levels along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts are rising three to four times faster than the global average. Global sea level rise has been projected to rise two to three feet by the end of the 21st century, but in hot spots, the increase may be greater.
A panel of scientists that advises North Carolina's Coastal Resources Commission, a state policy panel, said coastal communities should plan for about 39 inches of sea level rise by 2100 based on seven scientific studies.
That drew a backlash from a coastal economic development group called NC-20 that called it fake science. The group said making development take into account 39 inches of sea level rise could undermine the coastal economy, raise insurance costs and turn thousands of square miles of coastal property into flood plains that could not be developed.
During floor debate Tuesday, Rep. Pat McElraft, a Republican who sponsored the bill, questioned the scientific accuracy of climate change and said that sea level rise along North Carolina's coast in the last century had averaged 8 inches.
"The science panel used one model, the most extreme in the world," McElraft said. "They need to use some science that we can all trust when we start making laws in North Carolina that affect property values on the coast."
The legislation calls for the coastal resources commission to deliver a new study of recommended sea level rise by 2015.
Democratic lawmakers, who are in the minority in both chambers, argued against the legislation, noting it had made the state a butt of jokes. Television comedian Stephen Colbert joked recently that North Carolina was considering making sea level rise illegal.
"This bill is basically like saying to your doctor, ‘Don't do any tests on me, and if you do any tests and find something wrong, don't tell me for four years,'" state Representative Deborah Ross, a Democrat, said. "By putting our heads in the sand literally, we are not helping property owners. We are hurting them. We are not giving them information they might need to protect their property. Ignorance is not bliss. It's dangerous."
The legislation goes now to Governor Beverly Perdue, who has not indicated her position on the bill. The governor has 10 days to sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without her signature.
If Perdue vetoes it, state law requires the governor to call the General Assembly back into session to consider an override of the veto.
Perdue has issued 19 vetoes during the 2011-12 sessions, the most of any North Carolina governor. The Republican-led legislature has overridden 11 vetoes.
(Reporting By Greg McCune and Eric Walsh)