For most of the eastern United States, this is a week of high anxiety — fixated on a swirling red, green, and yellow blob at the bottom of the TV screen and the increasing certainty that the most powerful East Coast storm of our lifetimes is going to slam into the coastal Carolinas with a massive storm surge, destructive winds, and biblical flooding.
For Dr. Stan Riggs, a somewhat crusty marine geologist at East Carolina University entering his ninth decade on Mother Earth, and for his fellow North Carolina scientists, the expected landfall of Hurricane Florence as a potentially lethal Category 4 or 5 storm later this week is the day they've seen coming for a long time.
Earlier in this century, in a bygone era when North Carolina's politicians took pride in hosting some of America's top research universities, Riggs was a leader on a scientific advisory board that came back with a dire warning for the Tarheel State's long, low-lying expanse of coastline. The rapid acceleration of global warming, the panel advised, would mean a likely rise in sea level in the Carolinas of 39 inches — or roughly 1 meter — by the year 2100. And that was using the middle projection of the three models the scientists considered.
If North Carolina's leaders were to take these new realities of climate change seriously, they would remap flood zones to curb runaway over-development along the Atlantic coast and spend hundreds of millions of dollars elevating roads or building new waste-treatment plants. One of the worst consequences of the rising ocean — which is occurring faster in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region than in other parts of the world — would be the amplified storm surge in a direct hit from a major hurricane.
Armed with the scientific evidence, the North Carolina legislature sprung into action.
In 2012, it enacted a law … that essentially outlawed the report and barred state officials from using its findings to make coastal development decisions. It was a big win for wealthy real estate developers and for conservative voters of the 2009-10 tea party movement that had embraced the uniquely American notion that climate science is a liberal hoax.
Speaking by telephone Monday from his campus office in Greenville, N.C. — a city that was inundated with up to six feet of water in 1999's Hurricane Floyd and now sits directly in the path of Florence — Riggs told me how North Carolina "had a plan to deal with sea level and climate change, but they took it off the table and pulled the rug out from under the scientific panel."
In 2016, Riggs quit the advisory board rather than further alter his findings to please the pro-development whims of Republican lawmakers. "I'm an older person — I'm not wasting any more of my life on bull—-," he told me. Instead, he works now with a growing network of town and county officials on the Carolina coast who take climate science seriously and are taking steps to fight back.
If you live in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Virginia, you should not be reading this column. You should be boarding up your home and protecting your valuable possessions before you protect the most valuable possession of all — yourself and your family — by evacuating to higher ground. The threat to life and property posed by Hurricane Florence has become so severe that even President Trump took a break from his anti-FBI tweetstorms to offer some sound advice.
If you don't live in Florence's immediate path, this seems like the perfect time to look up from the rotating red blob on your TV screen for a few minutes and talk about a) why storms, floods, and droughts are setting unthinkable records for their intensity; b) why in America it's been such good politics to embrace such bad science, or — more accurately — no science at all; and c) what are we going to do about this climate mess once the damage from Flo finally ebbs.
Of course, many readers are going to say that now is not the right time to mix weather and politics — because hurricanes and wildfires are becoming the mass shootings of the climate-change debate, where saying anything in a moment of crisis beyond offering our thoughts and prayers to the afflicted is crass and inappropriate. But thoughts and prayers won't help the mostly underprivileged residents of the low-lying Carolinas any more than they saved gunshot victims in Parkland. The reality is there's no better time to talk about our failure to take climate politics seriously than on the eve of a natural disaster that global warming is making worse.
Which leads right into the other thing many readers are going to say, which is that tropical storms have long been a part of life in a place like the Carolinas — I mean, they have a pro hockey team called the Hurricanes, for cryin' out loud. True, and they've survived the above-mentioned Floyd in 1999, or Hurricane Hugo, a major hurricane that struck the Carolinas in 1989, among others.
But Hurricane Florence is not normal. If the current projections from the National Hurricane Center hold up, Florence will make landfall in North Carolina as a Category 4, the most powerful hurricane to hit that far north on the U.S. Atlantic coastline since humans began tracking them. You can add that to the recent spate of weather records — unprecedented wildfires from California to Northern Europe, or Houston's epic 2017 flooding after Hurricane Harvey — branded by a changing, hotter climate that brings lengthy droughts played off against a moister atmosphere and warmer oceans that intensify storms.
Meanwhile, during the early 2010s — right around the time that North Carolina lawmakers were voting to reject climate science — parts of the Mid-Atlantic were recording a rise in sea level as great as 1 inch every year, coinciding with years of record-high average global temperatures and melting polar ice caps. The result in North Carolina has been unprecedented and unexpected levels of "sunny day flooding" from high tides — 84 days of it in Wilmington, N.C., in 2016, with the pace of these events accelerating. It's terrifying to think how higher seas might affect Florence's storm surge this week.
The response of North Carolina's politicians (including then-Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, who allowed 2012's climate-change-denying H.B. 819 to become law without her signature) to this existential threat has been to attack the science, to allow the pace of coastal development on the Outer Banks and other pricey beachfronts to accelerate, and to invest money in quick fixes like sea walls that — in the opinion of scientists like Riggs — only make problems like coastal erosion worse.
"We're destroying the resource, and we'll pay the price in the next few days if this storm comes in," Riggs said, "and these storms keep coming …"
The maddening thing, of course, is that this is not just a North Carolina problem. The deep-red Solid South is a hotbed of climate-science denial — especially in the billionaire-funded statehouses that are safely above sea level — but the same kind of resentments of pointy-headed-liberal scientists that whipped up Tarheel voters and lawmakers in the early 2010s echoed in 2016 with the election of President Trump and his appointment of climate deniers to key posts in the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior, and elsewhere.
On the very same day that Trump was warning Southerners to evacuate from Florence's path, his regulators at EPA were preparing to side with industry (what else is new?) and make it easier for oil and gas drillers to release methane — a significant greenhouse gas — into the atmosphere. That will make the planet hotter, making the oceans warmer, making the next hurricane even stronger, making the next presidential evacuation tweet even more urgent. The same could be said of other recent ill-advised and arguably insane moves out of Trump's Washington, like weakening emissions rules for cars and weakening emissions rules for power plants.
But while we mess up the policy, there's nothing humans can do now to change the course of Florence. The aging televangelist Pat Robertson — who ran for president in 1988 right as the GOP was starting to lose its collective mind and who lives in the storm's path in Virginia Beach — turned this week to a higher authority. "In the name of Jesus, you Hurricane Florence, we speak to you in the name of Jesus, and we command the storm to cease its forward motion and go harmlessly into the Atlantic," he prayed with his viewers.
Call me a godless cynic, but I don't think Pat Robertson's idea is going to work. I hope I'm wrong. I truly hope that Flo pulls a 180 and drifts into the oblivious sea. And if it does, or — heaven forbid — if it doesn't, maybe Florence will be The One that finally causes the tide to turn, that causes our future climate policies to again be informed by sound science and not by political demagoguery. Because thoughts and prayers don't work any better on hurricanes than they do against AR-15s — but we mortal humans can make a real difference on climate.