Friday, April 26, 2013

Climate Change Gag Rule

 "I think this is a brilliant solution. If your science gives you a result that you don't like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal. Problem solved."  --Stephen Colbert

Earlier this year, GOP legislators introduced a bill which fired sitting board and commission members before the end of their terms as well as stacking these boards with industry-friendly appointment slots.  The NC House and Senate  passed different versions of this bill.  The two bills were sent to an appointed  conference committee.  Conference Committees are supposed to act as negotiating bodies to resolve differences between two drafts of bills on the same subject.  In this case, the Conference Committee added in new language which serves to act as a gag rule for all state agencies on climate change planning and adaptation.  This provision was not in either bill.

In fact, six versions of the bill had been batted about the General Assembly over the past few months.  The climate change gag rule was added (at page three, lines 13-16) only in conference committee, not in the six separate, debated versions.   The gag rule provision reads:

“No State appropriations or departmental receipts shall be used by State agencies for the development, promotion, dissemination, or implementation of a statewide climate change action plan or adaptation strategy, unless such activities are specifically authorized by the General Assembly. This shall not prevent individual State agencies from addressing climate or weather-related issues or events that are within the scope of their existing agency duties and responsibilities.”

First, this bill is problematic because it goes beyond the budget power of the General Assembly to create a gag rule on executive branch agencies.  The General Assembly can certainly control state spending on climate change budget items. The right place to do that is in the budget bill by choosing by choosing not to fund those initiatives.  The General Assembly   had already enacted law in 2011 stating that the Legislative Commission on Climate Change's work was over and dissolving the Commission.   With no budget and no Commission, what was the General Assembly aiming to limit?  Some clues may be found in the broad language chosen for this provision.   

This language includes “departmental receipts” so it prevents state agencies from obtaining grants to do this work.  It also uses two undefined but broad terms “action plan” or “adaptation strategy.”  These terms are so broad as to include work of academic research or long range infrastructure planning.

This is a climate change gag rule in its effect.  This language will likely prevent agencies from doing internal, staff-level work on either climate change plans or adaptation. It would apply also to grant monies (departmental receipts), so it goes far beyond the budget of state appropriations from tax revenues.  

It also prohibits "promotion" and "dissemination." This would appear to prevent agencies such as the Division of Coastal Management from publishing climate change planning work already done.  Also it could be used by terminate the work of any state entity which is developing climate change adaptation planning, even university researchers.

UNC-CH has a Center that helps study issues related to adaptation to climate change. This Center is considered a national leader in studying issues related to adaptation to climate change.  NC State University is awarding degrees to candidates studying climate change science and adaptation policy. Their outstanding research faculty have also been landing grants to study climate change impacts on forestry and agriculture.  This type of grant funding helps public universities keep tuition low.  What about the research done and published by scientists working for state institutions planning for climate change?  How are they going to attract collaborators for illegal research.  

And how about long term plans for state infrastructure vulnerable to climate change?  NC DOT has to plan roads far into the future.  Will they be prevented from looking at climate change adaptation altogether?
DENR will have to take down its harmless  and helpful website.  Even North Carolina's climate science office  itself may run afoul of this provision.

This gag rule was slipped in to a bill at the last minute with no floor debate or committee vetting.  It is bad policy all the way around.  Once again, our state has become a laughingstock

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