Focus on science — not profit — when passing laws

By Brian Gentry, Contributing Editor

Upward of 30 inches of rain pummeled coastal North Carolina as Hurricane Florence made landfall Friday, disintegrating roads, uprooting towering trees, knocking out power systems and completely isolating cities with hundreds of thousands of residents.

Homeowners who had been unwilling to evacuate could only wait and watch as the storm flooded their houses — something exacerbated by relaxations in North Carolina building codes. Most notably, the state government rolled back regulations in 2014 that had required homebuilders to build above the FEMA base flood elevation — the predicted water height in the event of flooding.

North Carolina’s government neglected residents’ safety in favor of cheaper construction by rolling back those regulations. And it can’t claim naivety either — Hurricane Floyd devastated the region in 1999 and another big storm was bound to hit the region again.

North Carolina’s mistakes with building codes serve as a lesson for future rules and regulations. As temperatures rise and extreme weather events become increasingly common, we need to anticipate the expected changes in climate and modify our plans for public and private infrastructure accordingly.

North Carolina is an example of bad foresight for extreme weather events. Nine hurricanes have made landfall in the state in the past 30 years, many of which caused significant damage. Still, new residents continue to settle along the coast. Wilmington, in the state’s south, experienced an extreme population boom between 1990 and 2010.

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Hurricane Florence dumped historic amounts of rain on cities across both Carolinas. (Map by Brian Gentry | Online Visual Editor)

Despite this, the state refuses to pass sensible regulations on development. After an in-state commission emphasized the threat of climate change in 2012, the state imposed a moratorium on considering sea-level rise when passing regulations on coastal development.

The state has rolled back other building codes as well. In the past six years, it’s scrapped regulations on securing storm shutters, a dangerous move that risks the structural integrity of homes during hurricanes. It also has moved to update its building codes only once every six years instead of every three years, making the codes consistently behind the international standard set by the International Code Council.

North Carolina’s inadequacy of handling resilience to climate change should prompt federal action. On the federal level, regulations can keep residents across the country safe and more money exists to make sweeping changes when compared to state and local governments. Already, the EPA predicts that modifying our system of roads and rails to accommodate the effects of climate change will cost up to $280 billion by 2100. While this only represents a tenth of a percent of the annual budget, this doesn’t account for modifications to other pieces of infrastructure either.

Yet the current administration appears hell-bent on its mission to completely neglect climate change. When President Donald Trump released his infrastructure plan in February, urban planners, engineers and lawmakers alike criticized it for its blatant disregard of climate change.

Among the most salient of criticisms are directed at the proposal for the construction of roads, bridges and other public infrastructure in regions already impacted by rising waters. While these pieces of infrastructure may be beneficial in the short term, they’re simply a waste of money if they’ll be covered under feet of water in the long term.

“The impact of not considering climate change when planning infrastructure means you end up building the wrong thing, in the wrong place, to the wrong standards,” Michael Kuby, a professor at Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability, told The New York Times in response to the release of the plan.

Other national governments have established a precedent for considering climate change when planning public infrastructure. Municipalities across Canada received federal funding for various initiatives in infrastructure planning and climate-change resilience, including wastewater treatment and stormwater collection. Belize has a plan to update its roads to account for increased flood risk and other impacts of climate change.

But this isn’t limited to governments at the state and federal level. On a more local scope, cities need to maintain their infrastructure at a level that can accommodate the changing climate. This is especially true in areas susceptible to extreme weather events, like the hurricane-prone Southeast, but it’s just as important in more protected regions.

For example, Pittsburgh’s sewage pipes and stormwater pipes are connected and any significant amount of precipitation causes sewage to overflow into the rivers. As local authorities adjust the system to prevent this sewage overflow, they need to account for the increased likelihood of high rainfall events due to climate change and modify plans accordingly.

This is not a partisan issue. Oregon, a decidedly blue state, continues to allow construction along its coast despite the looming threat of a 9.0 earthquake that could hit at any moment. When it hits, it’ll damage most buildings and inundate the region under a tidal wave hundreds of miles wide and tens of feet tall.

Fundamentally, this is an issue with public perception. Despite the fact that nearly 40 percent of Americans live near the oceans, where rising sea levels threaten future daily life, many do not view climate change as a personal issue. Americans generally agree that climate change is a problem, but fewer than 50 percent believe that it will personally impact them — and a comparable number rarely talk about the changing climate.

This ignorance poses a risk to discussions of mitigating the impacts of climate change and the public needs to better understand the situation so that we can hold all levels of government accountable. At this point, there is very little that the world can do to halt climate change. The most conservative estimates of global warming predict a three-degree Celsius increase in temperature — this will submerge coastal cities.

Anticipation of disasters is the only way to protect citizens from the havoc these weather events can wreak upon them. Governments at every level must step up and plan for the worst, because the worst is more likely to happen than we want to believe.