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Et Tu, Virginia? Again with the Sea Level Rise


At the risk of becoming Plugged-In’s “Those crazies are at it again” correspondent, I would like to bring your attention to two noteworthy developments regarding sea level and politics, and then I hope to wash my hands of the topic -- with higher sea levels making hand-washing especially convenient, of course.

In case you're interested in actual data. In case.

The first concerns the Commonwealth of Virginia, which – thanks, neighbors! – is taking a bit of the heat off North Carolina’s legislature. In Virginia, as in North Carolina, reasonable lawmakers concerned about changing climate and sea levels commissioned a study. And like in North Carolina, less-reasonable types in the legislature couldn’t stand the idea of addressing things like “sea level rise,” which this piece from the Virginian-Pilot says are considered “liberal code words.” So in order to pass through the legislature the study addressed “recurrent flooding” instead.

Dumb enough, and at least the Virginian legislators didn’t try to legislate the scientific methods as their counterparts in NC had. The problem is, where the Virginia legislators chose language out of fear, the Virginian-Pilot unwittingly piled on. Suggesting that “sea level rise” and “climate change” are perceived as “liberal code words” is perfectly reasonable; unreasonable people do perceive them as such. BIll sponsor Chris Stolle called "sea level rise" "a left-wing term," after all. But they’re not liberal code words: they’re scientific terms. The Virginian-Pilot should have noted this. More, the Virginian-Pilot called the “recurrent flooding” term the legislators used a “more politically neutral phrase,” which is wrong twice.

In the first place, “recurrent flooding” is to “sea level rise” as “repeated breath holding” is to “drowning.” One is local and manageable; the other is systemic and catastrophic; pretending they’re the same is politics of a high order. More important, “recurrent flooding” is not a more politically neutral phrase. “Sea-level rise” is utterly politically neutral, because it is scientific, not political. It involves data and science, not politics and manipulation. “Recurrent flooding” on the other hand is a completely political phrase because it tries to soft-pedal reality. By buying into the belief that the very phrase “sea level rise” is somehow political, the Virginian-Pilot helps anti-science forces politicize even scientific language, to say nothing of science itself. Please insert your own "Yes, Virginia, ..." joke here; at Plugged In we're just too tired.

If people begin claiming the sky is green (just wait), saying the sky is blue is not political: it’s rational. Wearily agreeing to call the sky “blue according to some scientists” isn’t less-political. It’s suicide. So is this language.

Considering which, thank goodness for the North Carolina Coastal Federation, which is running a “Sea No Evil” contest on its Facebook page asking for suggestions for things besides the scientific modeling of sea level rise that the North Carolina legislature could render illegal. The answers are getting good: Rebecca Snider suggests banning medical tests, allowing diagnosis only on the basis of family history; Peter Walz suggests banning meteorological forecasting of record highs or lows, since there’s no historical record of those beforehand. The Federation hopes to eventually get a rational legislator to propose the best suggestions as amendments to the slightly less overtly crazy sea level rise bill when the NC Senate votes on it.

It’s nice to hear reasonable voices. Add yours to the chorus.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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