Residents and civic officials from Delaware to San Francisco and from Galveston to North Carolina’s Outer Banks are learning as they go on preparing for sea level rise risks that some of their residents fundamentally doubt. Part I of a Two-Part Feature.

As the oceans rise in coming decades, coastal communities will face wrenching decisions about which places to protect and which to abandon to the encroaching sea.

But scientists and planners around the country are finding that preparing for sea level rise involves far more than merely organizing an orderly retreat.

Some citizens view sea level rise as a hoax and are combing peer-reviewed literature and arguments from websites skeptical of climate change to make their case. Others are turning out to public meetings to oppose plans for sea level rise. A few even worry that planners are dupes of a United Nations or “one-world” plot. (See related post and video.)

But in recent interviews, planners and scientists who study the issue said that most Americans simply don’t know much about how sea level rise could affect them. Even so,  in places such as Galveston, Texas, which has a long history of devastating hurricanes, residents are eager to stave off future flooding.

‘Wildly Speculative Outcomes’

North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a 200-mile strand of low-lying islands, are unstable by nature. Waves press against the shore, sucking up sand, stowing it elsewhere. Passing hurricanes carve new inlets.

In 2010, a panel of scientists examined peer-reviewed literature on how quickly the ocean could rise around the state’s coast. They released a report concluding that North Carolina should plan for a meter of sea level rise by 2100.

Once the report went public, the backlash came swiftly.

Citizens began submitting detailed comments, criticizing the report almost sentence-by-sentence, said Antonio Rodriguez, an associate professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a contributor to it.

The comments took Rodriguez aback.

“I wasn’t surprised that people didn’t like the number,” he said. “But I was very surprised by the way they went about it.”

Critics identified articles from peer-reviewed journals that found little acceleration in sea level rise, such as a 2011 paper published in the Journal of Coastal Research and a 2006 paper in Geophysical Research Letters.

“There are those papers out there,” Rodriguez said. “Part of our job was to weed through the research and identify the best research to base these predictions for North Carolina on — and not emphasize other research that is not as high-quality.”

Citizens also repeated arguments popularized by websites skeptical of climate change. In a lengthy critique, Morehead City resident John Droz, Jr., pointed to work by skeptics Steve McIntyre, S. Fred Singer, and Nils-Axel Mörner as evidence that the science panel’s work was flawed.

“It appears that they felt that they had to come up with something to get people’s attention,” wrote Droz, a board member of NC-20, a group that has been outspoken against restrictions on coastal development. “In the unscientific society we currently find ourselves in, it was an easy matter for them to find other like-minded researchers who had constructed computer models that projected wildly speculative outcomes.”

Douglas Harris, a commissioner for coastal Carteret County, told The Yale Forum that imposing regulations in preparation for sea level rise would create significant hardships for North Carolina residents. For example, a policy accounting for a six-inch rise in water tables would prevent officials from issuing new permits for septic tanks in the eastern portion of the county, he said.

He added that he questions the science panel’s projection.

“State bureaucrats are convinced that the present nonexistent increasing rate of sea level rise will increase rapidly in the future,” he wrote in an e-mail message. State officials, he wrote, “are aggressively ‘educating’ and manipulating local government officials to impose 39-inch sea-level-rise planning immediately.”

In fact, the N.C. Division of Coastal Management announced in October that it will delay taking action on sea level rise while the science panel prepares a response to public criticism.

‘A Maintenance Nightmare’

Just a few hundred miles up the coast, a proposal to eliminate a frequently flooded parking lot on Assateague Island, Va., has sparked controversy in the nearby community of Chincoteague.

Since the 1960s, Chincoteague has relied on income from tourists who visit the one-mile beach on Assateague Island, well-known for its free-roaming wild horses. But storms often erode the adjacent parking lot, and last summer, Hurricane Irene swept the lot away entirely.

“It’s a maintenance nightmare,” said Louis Hinds, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

With an eye on the rising sea, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed, among several other options, relocating the publicly accessible beach 1.5 miles north and using shuttles to transport tourists from inland parking lots.

The proposal angered some Chincoteague residents, who feared that the less-convenient shuttles would drive away beach-goers. In public meetings, some life-long residents said they had seen no evidence of a rising sea.

“There was a vocal group within the community that was in denial about sea level rise,” Hinds said. “In my naiveness, I expected everyone to get on board, because the science is out there now.”

Still, Hinds said, the refuge is proceeding with plans to use a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to purchase property for a back-up parking lot.

‘A Fire under Us … We Have To Fight’

Rice University oceanographer John Anderson experienced a backlash of his own last fall over a report on sea level rise in Galveston Bay, Texas.

The report, a chapter in a longer volume about the state of the Galveston Bay, stated that sea level rise is accelerating and that rates could exceed four millimeters a year by 2100. But officials at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) deleted references to rising sea levels and to human influences on the climate.

After Anderson complained about the changes and said he would not allow his name to be printed on the edited chapter, TCEQ officials relented. In December, Anderson and state officials reached a compromise on the wording of the chapter, which has since been published.

In a recent telephone interview, Anderson said the incident left him and other scientists feeling invigorated.

“It’s put a fire under us,” he said. He added that he and other Gulf Coast scientists are organizing a consortium to issue consensus statements about sea level rise. “We have to fight, because the price of not fighting those battles is unacceptable.”

Engaging Citizens …

In the nearby city of Galveston, Texas, a series of workshops held last fall to plan for erosion sparked concerns that new rules would hurt property values. (Residents of Galveston are well familiar with the city’s long history of devastating hurricanes, such as the 1900 hurricane that killed more than 8,000 people. And that memory is built into the DNA of the city’s residents and their thoughts about such issues.)

But Planning Director Wendy O’Donohoe said that Hurricane Ike, which in 2008 had damaged or destroyed three-quarters of the city’s homes, heightened citizen interest in flooding and sea level rise.

“There are people in the community with very strong opinions that this is happening, and that we need to plan for it,” she said.

… from Delaware to San Francisco …

Similarly, but across the country, coastal residents in Delaware are more likely than inland residents to say they have personally experienced the effects of sea level rise, said Susan Love, a planner for Delaware Coastal Programs.

Love has hosted a series of public engagement sessions around the state to help residents better understand the issue.

After one meeting, a resident submitted a comment suggesting that Love might be a dupe of a United Nations conspiracy.

“Please consider the fact,” the person wrote, “that your committee may be being used to promote an agenda not known to the members, as a means to insure local compliance to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, wetlands project, as a vital step in attaining sustainable development. This is set forth in the U.N. ‘Agenda 21’ program.”

The resident’s comment appears to refer to a conspiracy theory, advanced by anti-U.N. activists, that sustainable development is a socialist plot to undermine property rights.

But Love said such beliefs are in the minority. A 2009 survey commissioned by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control found that 75 percent of Delaware residents believe that climate change is contributing to sea level rise. Twenty-two percent reported that they had personally experienced the effects of a rising sea.

And in San Francisco, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission recently approved a policy to require communities near the shoreline to plan for sea level rise before they build in areas that may flood in coming decades.

Steve Goldbeck, the commission’s acting executive director, said that when the policy was first proposed, it kindled controversy. Many Bay area residents believed scientists were still debating whether climate change is occurring, or thought that it would only affect polar bears or people in the far-distant future, he said. Some members of local governments feared that the commission would seize jurisdiction of inundated areas.

From 2009 through 2011, the commission held workshops with environmental, business and local government groups, along with 35 public hearings. The commission amended the policy’s language to assuage concerns about jurisdiction and to satisfy business and environmental leaders. In October 2011, with broad support from interest groups, commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the new policy.

Lessons Learned … A Problem WITH a Solution

Planners and scientists said these experiences have taught them plenty about communicating with the public about issues related to climate change.

For example, Delaware’s Susan Love said she frames sea level rise in positive terms. “We try to make this a problem that has a solution,” she said. “It’s not something that is happening that we have no control over.”

Part II of this story will examine these and other strategies for engaging the public on sea level rise.

In the meantime, how is planning for sea level rise unfolding in your community? Share your experiences in the comments section below.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach is the Senior Editor of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist, and...