Is now the time to prepare for a rising sea?
The Brunswick News

Daniel Parshley has watched the sometimes raucous debate over climate change rage on for a long time.

The executive director of the Glynn Environmental Coalition, an environment watchdog group in Glynn County that is supported by grants, membership fees and donations, is somewhat perplexed.

He is at a lost to understand why the issue continues to generate so many sparks between people who want to respond to scientific findings with meaningful actions and those who question the validity of what they fear could lead to more government regulation.

Parshley is especially concerned when legitimate discussions of rising sea levels become garbled when associated with the term "global warming."

To Parshley, seeing is believing.

"All people need to do is look around," Parshley said. "I don't have a crystal ball, so I don't try to predict the future. I go with what we're seeing, and what we're seeing is more flooding on Newcastle Street every year."

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have been warning coastal communities like Brunswick and the Golden Isles about rising sea levels for decades.

Even the acclaimed Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia, the state's flagship university, is offering to help communities prepare for higher tides in the future. It received a Georgia Sea Grant to assist cities and counties dotting the seaboard to begin thinking about measures to protect critical infrastructure from the effects of salt water.

"People just need to be more observant," Parshley said, puzzled by nonbelievers. "Look at the marshes and look at how your flood insurance is going up. Put the pieces together, folks.

"I just go with what I see, and what I see is we need to be making plans for our infrastructure."

The rising sea level is predicted to be the result of the melting of the polar ice caps, which is a result of those two politically flammable words: global warming.

"It's so embroiled with political hyperbole, so intermingled with other issues, and with people protecting their turf, that the message is not clear," Parshley said. "It's just so wrapped up in special interests. The politics of it all has obscured any meaningful discussion."

There have been some takers of offers of help from the Carl Vinson Institute. Tybee Island, its beaches drawing thousands of visitors who yield the small city millions of dollars in business and tax revenue annually, is receiving advice through a partnership with the institute.

To the south, in St. Marys, an environmental group wants the state to tell the Camden County community what kind of tides it might expect in the years ahead.

Experts from the institute and Georgia Sea Grant will discuss the rising sea level at a public meeting at 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Theatre by the Trax, 1000 Osborne St. in St. Marys.

Alex Kearns, discussion organizer, says she invited the experts after learning about a similar presentation on Tybee Island.

"St. Marys is approximately 10 feet above sea level, and is so vulnerable to both sea level and climate-related events," she said.

While the seminar will address concerns specific to Camden County, Kearns says the recommendations will apply to other Coastal Georgia communities.

"Given the astronomical costs associated with weather-related events - such as Superstorm Sandy - climate change and sea level rise can no longer be viewed in environmental terms alone, and must be seen as major factors that could cripple our economy, both locally and federally," Kearns said.

One of the speakers will be Jennifer Kline, coastal hazards specialist with the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Kline said elected officials and residents she has met are taking the issue seriously. In Chatham County, for example, there have been growing concerns about flooding in downtown Savannah.

"We're not waiting for the Feds to tell us what to do," she said. "I think we have a good idea where sea levels will be."

The seminars make recommendations on where and how coastal communities should build schools, parks, government buildings, infrastructure and residential communities.

"Our approach is to continue education and outreach," Kline said. "It's just getting the public to understand what the science is."

Other areas of the Georgia coast have been quiet.

Glynn County Commission Chair Mary Hunt says she will ask fellow commissioners if any of them want to attend the seminar at St. Marys to determine if the speakers should be invited to Glynn County to discuss the issue.

"It sounds like something that would be of interest, because of where we're (situated)," she said.

Brunswick Mayor Bryan Thompson says no one in the city has asked for a sea-rise seminar in the city.

"I understand that sea levels are indeed slowly inching up," Thompson said. "I believe that this is something we need additional information on now, so that if it continues, as some anticipate over the next several decades, we can have reasonable plans in place to appropriately address the rise in sea levels."

And continue it will. That warning resurfaced Jan. 21 in President Barack Obama's inauguration speech.

The president, after being sworn in for a second term, said it is time the nation began seriously addressing "global warming" in earnest. Finding new forms of energy would be a step in that direction, he said.

Finding alternative energy sources is a battle cry that has wide support among faithful Democrats like Mike Berion, chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

"In addition to cleaner water and air for future generations, it would also produce cheaper energy and create jobs," Berion said.

Some Republicans don't see eye-to-eye with that.

U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., says anything the president comes up with should be evaluated and its value determined before being enacted into law.

"It is crucial that the Senate carefully weigh the risks and benefits of any proposed climate change legislation," Chambliss said.

"I have concerns with any legislation that might increase electricity costs on Americans, send more American jobs overseas, or put our economy at a distinct disadvantage at a time when we can least afford it."