During a week when world leaders assembled in Copenhagen to hash out a way to confront the grim effects of climate change, a “sportsman’s roundtable” gathered in Columbia to address the impacts global warming could have closer to home — on South Carolina’s natural resources.

The small-scale December summit, organized by the S.C. Wildlife Federation, brought together scientists, business owners, and natural resource regulators.

Throughout the talks, the outlook for the Palmetto State could be spliced into dueling narratives. If we do nothing to combat our changing climate: gloomy. If we do something: well, less so.

There is perhaps nothing more invaluable than South Carolina’s natural resources when it comes to the state’s tourism economy, which itself is a booming business. The state has approximately 28.5 million domestic visitors per year, according to a June 2009 report by the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism. Those visitors generate millions of dollars in taxes and fees for state and local governments, as well as millions more in spending for local businesses.

Beaches are the most popular draw, with 29 percent of visitors rushing the sandy shores.

But whether you’re talking about beaches, golf courses, commercial and sport fishing, bird watching, or duck hunting, what drives the economic engine of outdoor recreation in the state comes down to one thing: the continuation of a sustainable climate.

Not Whether, But How Much

There’s no question that beaches are already feeling the effects of climate change. Sea levels along much of the U.S. coastline have risen five to nine inches in the past 100 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are several causes for the rise, but one of them is the changing climate.

According to the EPA, “A significant amount of sea level rise has likely resulted from the observed warming of the atmosphere and the oceans.”

In Charleston, the sea level is rising approximately 3.5 millimeters per year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Though it doesn’t sound like much, that’s a rise of 1.03 feet over 100 years — which could bring devastating changes to the South Carolina coast. Worldwide, sea levels are expected to rise between 0.6 feet and two feet in the next century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

If temperatures and ocean levels continue to rise, as climate change models predict, some of the first casualties in the state’s economy will be felt in the outdoor tourism sector, says Stuart Greeter, president of the S.C. Nature-based Tourism Association.

Sometimes called “ecotourism,” nature-based tourism is a sustainable economic activity that relies on an appreciation of natural and cultural resources. If animals start vanishing — animals that hunters and fishermen travel to South Carolina for — Greeter says the economies tied to them will vanish, too.

According to Damon Hearne, a biologist and the Southeastern land protection coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a seven or eight-degree air temperature rise in the state would wipe out South Carolina’s entire native brook trout population.

“Brook trout here are at the margins already,” Hearne says.

On a larger scale, “a lot of our natural systems out there will be dramatically changed,” Greeter says. “The rivers along the coast … the marshes. That’s what people come here to see. Those are the things that make South Carolina unique.”

As sea levels rise, even incrementally, all these natural assets could be heavily impacted. A running joke among environmentalists is that some day, Goose Creek could be beachfront property.

“People aren’t going to just let the buildings fall into the sea, they’re going to put a wall up, and so instead of the beach, we’re going to have a wall,” Greeter says. “That’s happened in a number of places.”

A Moving Target

Marion Edmond, the director of communications at the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, says that while his agency is concerned with how climate change could affect tourism in the state, for them the issue is not currently at as high a level as, say, severe weather problems. That’s because climate change is such a moving target.

“[We’re] talking about changes that are uncertain right now,” Edmond says. “Depending on who you bring to a conference and who you put up behind the podium, you’re going to get very different estimates, if estimates at all.”

The state’s tourism economy benefits heavily from its long strip of welcoming coast, so obviously there are concerns over the long-term sustainability of it.

“But let’s be really frank,” Edmond says. “In the current economic situation, the focus of the tourism industry, like almost every industry, is on the near-term recovery and improvement of our industry. Certainly as we begin to get more consistent determinations of what is likely to happen, there will be things done. I don’t want to indicate that nothing’s being done right now; there are conferences, there are meetings about it, but … is it of the level of say, hurricane preparedness? No.”

It’s Real, And It’s Happening

No doubt there are conflicting opinions about what changes the future might bring, but along the Southeast coast, much of the focus is on construction along the oceanfront and the correlating impact of climate change.

“Intense coastal zone development places coastal floodplains at risk to flooding from sea level rise, storm surge, and extreme precipitation events,” according to the EPA.

Among other things, rising sea levels erode beaches, increase the sensitivity of coastal areas to flooding and storm damage, affect coastal water supplies by increasing salt levels in both surface and groundwater, and upset the delicate balance of wetlands, which are a major source of recreational activities as well as a habitat for wildlife.

But there are also changes afoot for the rest of the state, including “changing forest character” and “higher summer heat,” according to the EPA.

Gov. Mark Sanford took the issue seriously enough that he created an advisory committee on climate change two years ago by executive order. Though criticized by some for not going far enough, that body issued 51 specific policy recommendations, including a voluntary reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Regulation is Coming

Talks like the sportsman’s roundtable about how to handle climate change — the latest preferred term for global warming — couldn’t come at a more critical time. Helped by strong backing from S.C. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, the federal government is considering transformational climate legislation that would cap the emission of greenhouse gases. The U.S. House recently passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), and similar efforts are moving forward in the Senate.

Even if the legislation doesn’t make it out of Congress, the Obama administration has already moved unilaterally by labeling greenhouse gases a threat to human health. That gives the EPA power to regulate their emission under the Clean Air Act.

But the zeitgeist in favor of action on climate change is not without its dissenters. Those who decry man-made climate change as a global hoax have had their arguments bolstered recently by a series of leaked e-mails from researchers in the U.K. Some of the e-mails show data might have been manipulated in certain climate research. It’s thrown a firebomb into the entire debate.

At the climate change luncheon on the 25th floor of the tallest building in Columbia, however, it seemed that the dust up over the e-mails was a mere distraction from the task at hand.

“What we’re seeing from those reports are sections of e-mails that are taken out of context and being exploited, I think, in some cases,” said climate expert Greg Carbone.

An associate professor of geography at the University of South Carolina, Carbone adds that the public hasn’t actually seen the e-mails, so anything that we do see comes from the person that hacked into someone else’s private account.

“There is enormous consensus on the potential for greenhouse gases to increase global temperature,” he says. “There is some evidence that it is happening already, but we have a lot more to learn about the climate system. I don’t think the out-of-context leaks of an anonymous thief offer much towards transparent, scientific debate about interesting and important climate questions.”

Furthermore, no matter how one looks at climate change models, he continues, the temperature change over the last century bears the fingerprint of greenhouse gasses and a distinct human impact.

Other environmental leaders handle the debate differently.

“You can argue whether humans are warming the planet,” says Steve Moore, director of climate and energy programs at the S.C. Wildlife Federation. “But you can’t argue that the planet is warming.”

And with that comes consequences — and not just environmental, but economic as well.

Given the worst-case scenarios, yes, plants and animals will die. That, most people realize. But when it comes to the messaging, what environmentalists and protectors of the state’s natural resources need to do in order to really reach people is pin it to their pocketbook, says Derek Brockbank, a Washington, D.C. lobbyist for the National Wildlife Federation. Because these days, that’s often the easiest way to get someone’s attention.

“You might think it’s obvious that when we talk about trout streams drying up and fewer trout, that means fewer fishermen and fewer bait-and-tackle shops, but it doesn’t always translate,” Brockbank says. “You’ve got to make these connections as precise as possible … The key piece, which everything is about now, is jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Drew Lanham, a Clemson University forest wildlife ecologist, echoes the point, adding some numbers into the mix.

“In 2008, 80,000 people relied on coastal tourism as a means of making a living,” he says. “Certainly, we cannot close our eyes to the importance of the outdoors and the environment.”

Lanham also points to certain million-dollar industries in the state, such as boat building, that are closely tied to the well-being of the state’s coast and waterways but are often overlooked.

“[Boat builders] are a smaller sector of the population, but that small sector certainly doesn’t need to see this go away,” Lanham says. “So that boat building is obviously in many ways linked to and perhaps dependent upon the health not only of our coastal resources, but of us keeping our lakes, our rivers, and our streams as places where people want to be.”

Overall, South Carolina’s gross domestic product is about $157 billion. According to Lanham, the amount of that accounted for by the state’s natural resources is enormous — about $29 billion per year, he estimates.

“Is that significant? I think so,” he says.

The Green Trio

On Thurs., Dec. 10, shortly after the climate change forum in Columbia was wrapping up, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and the Independent U.S. senator from Connecticut, Joe Lieberman, unveiled a “tri-partisan” framework for climate change legislation in the Senate.

Graham has been the only Republican in the U.S. Senate thus far to seriously work on climate-change resolution.

“I believe our collaboration has presented the best opportunity for our nation to become energy independent since I’ve been in Congress,” Graham said in a statement. “I believe the green economy is coming. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen; it’s when it’s going to happen.”

According to Wildlife Federation lobbyist Brockbank, Graham wields veto power over any single policy that goes into the Senate bill on climate change.

“Lindsey Graham, basically, might not be able to get everything in, but if Lindsey Graham says ‘no,’ it’s not going in the bill,” Brockbank says. “So he’s a critically important senator right now determining what is in climate policy.”

On Dec. 10, the three senators also sent President Obama a letter.

“As you depart for Copenhagen, we wanted to provide an assessment of where we see the debate heading in the United States Senate,” they wrote.

The triumvirate might have been speaking only for themselves, but it seems they are not operating in a vacuum or a tailwind in the ongoing debate about climate change. Whether on the world stage or at the local level, it’s something that it appears fewer and fewer people are willing to ignore.

Dan Cook contributed to this report.

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