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North Carolina passed a law in 2012 that could make hurricanes like Florence more damaging

Hurricane Florence could be historic storm
Hurricane Florence has potential to cause historic levels of destruction 02:33

North Carolina could find itself more vulnerable to damage from storms like Hurricane Florence due to a state law passed six years ago that banned using recent climate science to plan for the consequences of rising sea levels.

Climate scientists had warned for years that North Carolina's low-lying coast left it open to intensifying floods and hurricanes that could cost the state billions of dollars in damage, declining property values and lost recreation and tourism near the end of the 21st century. Climate scientists have also projected that rises in sea levels will make coastal storms more damaging, since more water will flood land.

But in 2012, state lawmakers responded by saying these studies could not be used for forecasts, arguing that the science wasn't solid enough to justify laws that could change property values. A Republican-led legislature pushed a bill that said projections for rising sea levels could only be based on historical data, rather than newer studies predicting problems for the future.

Republican State Rep. Pat McElraft, who sponsored the bill, said at the time that studies of rising sea levels "used one model, the most extreme in the world."

"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," she said during a floor debate about the bill.

Climate scientists and environmental groups immediately pushed back on the bill, warning that it would hold back any attempts to be proactive about climate change on North Carolina's coast. The North Carolina Coastal Federation, a nonprofit that helps protects the coast, said the bill "undercuts" years of work from the state's emergency managers "to help prepare the state for hurricanes."

The bill even became the butt of a joke by comedian Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native, who said in a 2012 episode of  "The Colbert Report" that it was like trying to "predict the weather based on the last two weeks of fair weather."

"If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved," Colbert said.

Then-Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, neither signed nor vetoed the bill, which allowed it to become law. 

Six years later, North Carolina is one of several Southern states bracing for Florence, which is expected to hit especially hard on the coast starting Thursday. The National Weather Service in Newport and Morehead City, along North Carolina's coast, said Florence could bring unprecedented levels of rainfall and flooding. 

A retired Duke University coastal geologist wrote an op-ed for Raleigh's daily newspaper last week warning that the state had only set itself up for disaster.

"We must take the long view and respond now to the rising sea in a planned fashion," Orrin H. Pilkey wrote in the News & Observer. "Currently the unspoken plan is to wait until the situation is catastrophic and then respond. We must begin the retreat now."

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