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Tom Baxter

In debate over sea level, science becomes more controversial

By Tom Baxter

Up in North Carolina, a state once admired for its relative enlightenment, the legislature has been talking about regulating the sea level.

Alarmed by a science advisory panel’s recommendation that the Tarheel State should plan for a sea-level rise of more than three feet over the next century due to global warming, coastal developers and business interests have advanced a bill limiting who can make such predictions and how they make them. Abashed somewhat by comedy-show ridicule of the measure, a committee toned down some of the language last week, but passed a bill which prohibits any ordinance, rule or official policy based on a sea-level estimate other than one made by the Coastal Resources Commission, using models “consistent with historic trends.” The full Senate passed it Monday.

Scientists who believe global warming could overwhelm recent historic trends take issue with those words, but to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Rouzer, a Republican running for Congress this fall, it only makes sense.

“Science should be based on real hard data,” Rouzer said. “Just because there is a group of folks that project the sea-level rise does not mean the sea will rise. There was consensus years and years and years ago that the earth was flat; turned out to be round.”

The sea-level bill is the latest, and far from the most egregious, product of the long war between developers who want to build as close to the ocean’s edge as they can and environmentalists who’d rather they weren’t there at all. But it’s also part of a more general, growing debate over science and its role in public life.

Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey predicted recently that the pace of discoveries has accelerated to the point that sometime in the next 15 to 30 years, “even the skeptics” will accept the concept of evolution. All those science-channel shows with realistic depictions of hominids and dinosaurs, each in their correct eon, would seem to argue for the logic of Leakey’s prediction.

But polling data tells a much different story. Leakey’s confidence in the march of science may have no more basis than Rouzer’s confidence in the stability of the sea level.

Over the past 30 years, Gallup  has been asking Americans their opinions on evolution, and during that period, the percentage of those who believe God created humans in their present form has consistently been higher than those who believe humans evolved under the guidance of God and a lot higher than those who believe humans evolved with God having nothing to do with it. In 1982, 44 percent of Americans didn’t believe in any form of evolution; this year 46 percent share that view.

If we apply the same historical standard which Rouzer has argued for on the North Carolina coast, it appears the number of those believing in evolution without God will rise over the next two or three decades, but more to the expense of those who straddle the theological fence than the pure believers.

A believer in no god, or several, might rightfully argue that the insertion of the capital-G God considerably skews the question of how much people really embrace the ideas that are widely accepted within the smaller scientific community, and influence everything from biomedical research to oil exploration. But the polling data shows that in the past two years, the percentage of Americans who believe in any sort of evolution has fallen from 54 percent in 2011 to 47 percent in 2012. Anyone who thinks public acceptance of scientific consensus is inexorable might want to bone up on the early Middle Ages.

The evolution debate is about what happened in the distant past, while the sea-level debate is about events projected in the immediate future. But for Leakey they are closely linked.

“If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you’ve got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena. Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change,” Leakey said.

That edge of apocalyptic foreboding, previously associated with hair-shirted religionists, has played a part in science becoming more politically controversial than it was in the days of the Space Race.

“We may be on the cusp of some very real disasters that have nothing to do with whether the elephant survives, or a cheetah survives, but if we survive,” Leakey said. That bespeaks a political challenge far more stark than racing the Russians to the moon.

It has taken about a century and a half for a tiny majority of Americans to believe they evolved along with other primates, either with or without God’s help. If we’re to believe the prophets of climate change, there isn’t that much time to make up our minds about whether the sea is rising.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.



  1. NoWarNow2011 June 11, 2012 6:33 pm

    @twombax should be an interesting read http://t.co/mzYT0npa #ocean #legislation #sealevel @climatehawk1 #climate #news @cyberwhalewarriorReport

  2. NoWarNow2011 June 11, 2012 6:36 pm

    @twombax ah, the bottom line. “Extinction is always driven by environmental change”Report

  3. Energy Expert June 12, 2012 3:44 pm

    I’m sure that you are a well-intentioned person, but your story is replete with misinformation.
    To see a more accurate accounting of what is transpiring in NC regarding SLR, please see “http://www.masterresource.org/2012/06/fighting-agw-religion-north-carolina”Report

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