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The Man Who Makes Sea Level Rise Go Away

Armed with a 168-slide PowerPoint and a message that resonates with North Carolina's conservative Legislature, John Droz has notched a remarkable record fighting sea-rise science, coastal development limits and renewable energy plans
Sunrise at Carolina Beach, North Carolina on Sunday 20th of May, 2012



Wikimedia Commons/Bigroger27509

MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. – John Droz Jr. is not the stereotypical back-room political player: A tall and trim 67, bespectacled with a shorn scalp, he's a man who prefers sweater vests and jeans rather than crisp suits and bears more resemblance to a retired high-school science teacher than a political heavyweight.

Yet this semi-retired real-estate investor and self-described environmental advocate spends much of his time quietly and effectively plying the halls of power in Raleigh, N.C., deflecting credit and avoiding the spotlight. 

"This isn't about me," he offered, repeatedly.

What it's about, however, is Droz' outsized role in shaping science's influence on public policy – on climate change, sea-level rise, the advantages of renewable energy over fossil fuels. His work has rippled far beyond Raleigh's 1960s-era State Legislative Building and into the national debate on how to respond to warnings raised by climate scientists.

Droz, a part-time N.C. resident who summers in the Adirondack region of New York State, has a knack for getting time in front of North Carolina's conservative Legislature. In recent years he has proved adroit – to a degree unmatched by any other ordinary citizen in the Tar Heel State – at offering up alternatives to the assessments and conclusions provided by state analysts and scientific panels.

His work with lawmakers and the pro-development advocacy group NC-20 helped roll back state efforts to include climate-change predictions in coastal planning. He's testified against wind power. And he's tried to get the state to repeal its renewable energy standards.

One of the tools of Droz' trade is a 168-slide presentation, "Our Energy Policy: From Science or Lobbyists?" that's packed with data on the high costs and inefficiencies related to wind energy.

It's also dense with populist claims: "Pied piper profiteers," he states in one slide, are trying to fleece the public through a "reverse Robin-Hood" scheme that would force low-income taxpayers to subsidize green energy projects through their utility bills.

'Science under assault'
Droz has presented his slideshow, and others like it, including "Science Under Assault," to the North Carolina Legislature and in town-hall style meetings across the country. Those talks are often sponsored by conservative and libertarian-leaning groups such as the American Tradition Institute, a think tank known for hounding climate scientists with enormous data requests.

His goal behind the presentations? To educate a public that he says has been misled by special interest groups who put forth scientists and experts with personal and political agendas.

But what Droz is doing, say experts on public policy and climate science, is successfully sowing doubt in lawmakers and the public alike. He raises questions about the science behind complex policy issues mostly tied to global warming where, among scientists, the evidence is clear.

"Most members are not scientists, and they're not particularly prepared to, in the same way a way scientist does, weigh scientific evidence about complex phenomena," said Tom Birkland, a professor of public policy at North Carolina State University.

The efforts of Droz – and those who present similar arguments in a similar fashion, notably Fox News and other conservative media – erode the public trust in scientists, said Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist at a consulting firm in California and an advocate for responsible energy policies. 

An outsized voice
It also discredits the notion of global warming, added Nucitelli, who recently co-authored a study looking at the scientific consensus on climate change.

Such erosion, in turn, has helped give special interest groups such as the oil and coal lobbies an outsized voice in the media and in government bodies such as the North Carolina Legislature, he said.

Droz and his allies in the state capital, of course, don't see it this way. In Droz' view, he is the one fighting the hegemony. He's the one railing against forces trying to bend science to what he sees as an unnecessary and costly agenda – namely, a low-carbon future.

"It almost comes down to religion, effectively," Droz said, in an interview conducted in the sunroom of his Morehead City home, which overlooks the tranquil waters of the Bogue Sound.

"It starts off with a basic premise of, if it's green, it's good. But that's preposterously stupid, to make such a broad generalization."

And so Droz, with a master's degree in solid-state physics, who worked for a time for General Electric and other tech companies, made a mint in the 1970s and '80s due to successful real estate investments and retired at the age of 33, has come to play a fundamental role in shaping North Carolina's energy and climate policies.

Three bills
Among the North Carolina legislation Droz has advocated for, three bills in particular stand out. 

  • H819 – The most famous and well known, this bill gained national attention when it sought to prevent the use of any computer modeling in predicting future sea-level rise. A watered-down version was eventually passed into law and prevents the state from taking any action on sea-level rise until 2016.

  • H484 – Also passed into law, this bill tightened the requirements for obtaining a permit to construct wind-energy turbines by requiring developers to take into account potential impacts on military radar and flight paths.

  • H298 – Stuck in committee since April, this bill would have repealed the state's renewable energy requirement seeking to increase the use of power sources such as wind energy. The state standard partly funds those sources through increased rates on electric bills – the "reverse Robin-Hood" effect Droz refers to in his presentations.

Before Droz and his wife of more than 40 years, Elaine, moved to North Carolina, before he found himself working alongside groups whose only interest in the environment, many argue, is how best to profit from its exploitation, the couple was living in the Adirondacks. Droz maintained his primary residence in New York State until 2009, though he and his wife purchased a rental property in Emerald Isle, N.C. in 1984 that they own to this day.

Sierra Club activist
In that former life Droz was a member of the Sierra Club and advocated for stricter state water-quality regulations.

His first major environmental campaign would, today, likely see him on the same side as the green and pro-environmental activists who are now his harshest critics. 

Bottling companies were coming into his beloved Adirondacks and purchasing small pieces of property so they could gain access to the region's most precious natural resource – clean groundwater.

Droz lobbied for laws that prevented this type of resource-mining in the "world-class" place where he grew up.

Of the Adirondacks, he said, "it's a leading example in the world in how to have and preserve a huge area." 

Growing up in the largest state park in the Lower 48 instilled a lifelong love of both nature and science. 

And that first campaign set the tone for future efforts: Droz spent an extensive amount of time researching and educating himself on matters he did not yet fully understand (See the sidebar: From the Mac Wars, a political warrior emerges).

Waning faith
Over the years, Droz' faith in the sort of traditional and mainstream environmental groups that he had hoped to work with began to wane. He parted ways with the Sierra Club, he said, when they failed to take "science-based positions on important environmental matters."

Fast forward to today: Most notable – or perhaps, notorious – among Droz' legislative accomplishments was the passage of North Carolina House Bill 819, the sea-level rise bill. The law prevents until 2016 any regulatory changes based on sea-level rise predictions. It also will force the North Carolina Coastal Commission to revisit a 2010 report in which it predicted a 39-inch sea-level rise by 2100.

"If I hadn't done what I'd done," Droz said, "there wouldn't have been an H819."

That claim is difficult to verify. But Droz' work on the bill did have one very public impact: It put the scientific "debate" on sea-level rise in headlines nationwide. Of 22 local and national reports on the debate analyzed by the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, eight contrasted the claims of "sea-level skeptics" such as NC-20, against the work of career scientists "with no clear explanation of who might be right."

Droz is the former science advisor for NC-20, a coalition of coastal communities pushing economic development.

Taking on the 'dog and pony show'
NC-20 found an ally in Droz – an outspoken advocate desiring to take on the "dog and pony show" put on as the North Carolina Coastal Commission trumpeted its sea-level rise report.

For Birkland, that makes sense. Developers especially have an interest in preventing any regulation resulting from new sea-level rise predictions, Birkland said, as it might impede or drive up the cost of building along the coast.

Tom Thompson, the chair of NC-20, had only praise for Droz and his efforts. Today, however, Droz views the group through the same distrustful lens with which he now sees other former allies like the Sierra Club. When NC-20 began to make a push for wind-farm development, Droz said he realized that the group's proclaimed devotion to science was more of a smokescreen than any sort of deeply held conviction

He split with the organization. 

Hustle, activism and contacts
Droz downplays his knack for getting face time in front of lawmakers. But in many ways his ability to make his voice heard is a deft combination of activism, contacts and old-fashioned hustle.

One such example is State Rep. George Cleveland, a Republican from Onslow County on the North Carolina coast.

A subscriber to Droz' monthly newsletter – which covers mostly local and national energy legislation – suggested to him that the five-term lawmaker shared many of Droz' interests. Droz immediately fired off an e-mail to Cleveland and soon had an invitation to meet the legislator at Cleveland's Jacksonville, N.C., home.

Cleveland sits on a number of influential committees – agriculture, education, government – and serves as vice chair on both appropriations and transportation. In an interview, Cleveland said he found Droz to be a reliable source of environmental information, although the lawmaker acknowledged that he does not have the scientific expertise necessary to back up all of Droz' claims.

But Cleveland doesn't think verification is really necessary. Much of the debate over climate science is "part of a political game," Cleveland said, that "isn't based on sound science…and generates little industries that get a lot of money shoveled to them through preferential treatment."

A plum platform
Cleveland eventually invited Droz to present his arguments on sea-level rise before a spattering of coastal legislators at the state House in late 2011.

Droz brought a version of his stock slide show, explaining the pitfalls associated with supporting green energy. It was a plum platform.

Birkland said the shifting tone in North Carolina politics over the past few years has made it easier for activists like Droz to gain such an audience.

"Some people are looking for advocates like this to ratify their broader ideological belief system," Birkland said.

"It's about politics, not about science."

Sea-level rise was not the only issue that brought Droz before the Legislature that year.

Tilting against wind farms
Pamlico County Commissioner Christine Mele reached out to Droz after learning of his stance against wind farms.

Droz believes wind farms to be inefficient, unnecessary sources of energy whose only proponents are the manufacturers and developers responsible for installing the turbines and other requisite equipment.

He sees several problems with wind farms and the state's requirement that investor-owned utilities meet at least 12.5 percent of the energy needs through renewable energy sources or efficiency efforts.

Aside from being overpriced and unreliable, turbines require a traditional power plant to fill the gaps in intermittent wind, resulting in no consequential reduction in CO2 emissions, Droz said. 

He bases these arguments on the same sort of extensive, if selective, research that has driven many of his positions. Perhaps not surprisingly, he runs a website on the wind energy and the electrical energy sector: Alliance for Wise Energy Decisions.

At the time Mele reached out to Droz, her county was facing plans from the Wind Capital Group for a 150 megawatt wind farm that would cover 20,000 acres, power 30,000 to 40,000 homes and feature from 55 to 94 turbines with blades and towers that would soar upwards of 500 feet in the air.

Mele declined to comment for this article. But after reaching out to him, the lawmaker traveled to Droz' home in Morehead City, more than 40 miles to the south.

Mele asked if he would present his opinions before the Legislature.

Soon after, the House majority whip called. And on Nov. 28, 2011, there was Droz, again delivering his 168-slide PowerPoint presentation to lawmakers.

A 'cadre of good people'
Over the years Droz has built up a Rolodex stacked with contacts he describes as a "cadre of good people" – namely those who saw eye-to-eye with him on various environmental causes.

Many in this cadre, however, have seen their work and theories on issues such as global warming rejected by the broader scientific community. One example is William Gray, a meteorology professor at Colorado State University. Another is Nicola Scafetta, a physicist at Duke University.

Scafetta co-authored a 2006 study that claimed the sun was responsible for up to 50 percent of perceived global warming since 1900. When his methodologies were called into question, Scafetta refused to release the code to the computer program he used to make his assertions. The science blog Real Climate has an entire section dedicated to debunking Scafetta's claims.

Droz has also tied himself to various special-interest groups working to stop climate policy, ease development restrictions and stem green energy efforts. He is a Senior Fellow at the American Tradition Institute. He's presented at the Heritage Foundation's annual climate conference and at a John Locke Foundation workshop on wind power.

In 2012, the Sierra Club indicted Droz and the Koch brothers, industrialists who have backed Americans for Prosperity, among other efforts, for using misleading or otherwise unreliable information to turn the public against climate science and renewable energy sources.

'His own version of science'
Assessing Droz' activity in recent years, the Sierra Club, in a report titled "Clean Energy Under Siege," painted the former real estate investor as "little more than a climate-change denier" who "uses his own version of 'science' as a means of casting doubt."

Droz laughed off the report.

A stark difference exists between an activist like himself, and wealthy industrialists such as the Koch brothers, he said.

"I give people information," Droz said. "The Koch brothers hand out money."

"It's interesting that they [Sierra Club] view information as a threat," Droz added.

In the end, Droz says that's all he's doing – providing information. While many have decried the potentially devastating impacts of ignoring a rise in sea-level, Droz remains unconvinced that his work will have any negative consequences – long or short term.

 He reiterates that he's not in this for the money, and he takes issue with being labeled as a climate-change denier. 

"We don't know," he says, is the only legitimate answer to the question of man-made climate change.

If Droz is called odd or disingenuous for his positions, so be it. He has been called a lot worse over the years.

"It's only the pioneers who get arrows in their back," he said.

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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