Scientist Quits Coastal Panel; Says Politics Made It Ineffective

Jul 28, 2016

 A geologist with decades of expertise in climate change and coastal erosion has resigned from the state science advisory panel he helped found. Stan Riggs says politics have made the panel "ineffective."

Riggs is an expert in coastal and marine geology and a longtime professor at East Carolina University. He and two other scientists formed the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission's Science Panel after two hurricanes - Bertha and Fran - devastated the coast in 1996.

Stan Riggs

 The group helped develop what Riggs calls the nation's strongest coastal zone management program.  Then in 2011, Republicans took control of the state legislature.

“Our leadership decided that the public shouldn't know too much science. ... they had a basic attitude of unlimited growth and development, in a coastal system that’s dominated by high-energy storms and change,” he says.

As the state's politics changed, so did coastal management laws and policies.

“They were slowly going about undoing all of the things that the science panel and the Coastal Resources Commission the Division of Coastal Management had put in place over decades of good solid work by lots of people,” Riggs says. “And today, we have miles and miles and miles of barrier island beaches that don't have a beach anymore.”

In a scathing resignation letter, he complained of political pressure and a shortsightedness that he says threatens the viability of North Carolina's coastal economy.

The state is now "engineering" its coast, he says, especially barrier islands like the Outer Banks. It’s easier to protect new hotels and luxury homes. And the state now allows inlets and other sensitive areas to be hardened, instead of letting the land ebb and flow with nature. That endangers established inland communities.  

“We've changed the laws so that we can build sand-bag walls, fort walls, anywhere along the coast - higher and bigger than ever,” he says.  

Riggs’s biggest battle, however, has been over sea-level predictions. A 2010 Science Panel report forecast sea levels along the North Carolina coast could rise three feet by 2100.  That would wipe out many homes and developments.

State lawmakers rejected the report. In 2012, they passed a law barring local governments from setting their own definitions of sea-level rise to regulate development.

And when the Science Panel updated the report last year, it was told to limit projections to 30 years.  

“They just bloody didn't want to be burdened with anything that was going to limit growth and development out there,” Riggs says.

The chair of the Coastal Resources Commission, Frank Gorham, praises Riggs for his years of volunteer work on the panel. But he says they disagree on how far out the study should have looked. He says the 100-year prediction lacked credibility.

“Most of us in the business community can relate to 30 years. That's what mortgages are, that's what a lot of reserve studies are, so ... It's a typical planning horizon,” he says.

Last year’s report had a less scary number - predicting ocean levels would rise up to 10 inches in some areas over the next 30 years.

Gorham, who was appointed three years ago by Governor Pat McCrory, says his philosophy is to develop policies that protect individual property rights. That's where he disagrees with Riggs.

“You're gonna have a conflict between the ‘let mother nature do it's thing’ Stan proposes and 'How do you help people protect their dream,’” Gorham says.

As for Riggs, he’s says he needed to go in different direction, in part because he’s 78 years old.

“By the time you get old, you start thinking more about life and about how much time you got left. What are you going to with that time?"

He's formed a group called North Carolina's Land of Water to continue educating people about coastal science.

Gorham says he's developing new priorities for the Science Panel.  But, he adds, "I can tell you this, you don't go out and replace Stan Riggs."