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How Tim Kaine helped persuade Virginians — and conservatives — to act on climate change

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is joined by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) at a rally in Miami on July 23. Clinton has chosen Kaine to be her running mate. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Donald Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, questions climate change just like Trump himself does.

By contrast, a peek into the recent past of Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, suggests he takes the issue seriously and has paid particular attention to how it is affecting his constituents in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, which faces some of the largest rates of sea level rise in the country. The link also underscores the strong connection between climate change and national security, because one of the key players that must grapple with sea level rise in the area is Naval Station Norfolk, “the largest naval complex in the world.”

And it suggests that by approaching the issue in this way — focusing on regional vulnerability and on national security — Kaine has actually been able to make some significant bipartisan progress.

To understand why the Hampton Roads region is so vulnerable, it helps to think about how it’s like another region that is often cited as the only one in the United States that’s worse off — New Orleans. As in New Orleans, in the Hampton Roads area it isn’t just that seas are rising, but also that land itself is getting lower.

“The land is sinking at about three or four millimeters a year, and sea level is rising, three or four millimeters per year,” said Larry Atkinson, an oceanographer at Old Dominion University in Norfolk. “So that adds up to two feet per century. And then there’s a bunch of new evidence that show that the whole North Atlantic Ocean is changing, and as it changes, the Gulf Stream slows down, we see sea level rise.”

In Norfolk, evidence of climate change is in the streets at high tide

Some of these factors, like subsidence, may be partly natural and geologically driven (though subsidence is also caused by humans pumping water out of the ground). But rising seas — at an accelerating rate — is a phenomenon reflecting global warming. The Gulf Stream changes, too, are thought to be due to climate change.

According to the Center for Sea Level Rise at Old Dominion University, Hampton Roads ranks 10th globally when it comes to the value of assets that are exposed to rising seas.

Which brings us to Kaine. In 2014, ODU launched a “pilot project” to begin to address sea level rise by coordinating all the parties involved — local, state, federal — to address the issue. That’s when Kaine got really involved, Atkinson said.

“Several years ago we started working to get the Navy and the federal agencies and the cities to start to work together,” he said. “Kaine, after he heard we were doing that, he called a briefing where he got all of the elected representatives down here to get up on stage together to listen to this from the Corps of Engineers and the Navy.”

That 2014 event — sponsored by Kaine, three congressional colleagues (including two Republicans) and two regional mayors — was followed by letters from Kaine to federal agencies seeking support for sea level resilience planning efforts in the region. At the time, discussing the forum, Kaine told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that “It only worked if I could get Democrats and Republicans to do it together.”

“Virginia Officials Accomplish the Impossible: A Bipartisan Sea Level Rise Discussion,” wrote Mashable at the time.

Kaine himself seems to take a cautious, un-provocative stance on the issue. He argues that while some of the area’s sea level rise is due to natural causes, the safe bet is to take action: “If we act now on clean energy and infrastructure resilience — and sea level rise is on the low end of that spectrum — we’ll have cleaner air and tougher infrastructure, and our fossil energy resources will still be there. If the reverse happens — we don’t act now, and sea level rise is on the high end — our generation will have much to answer for with our grandchildren.”

“Sen. Tim Kaine has been an early and strong supporter of Old Dominion University’s coastal resiliency and recurrent flooding initiatives,” said Morris Foster, vice president for research at ODU, in a statement “Sen. Kaine helped kick off ODU’s Intergovernmental Pilot Project to coordinate local, state and federal responses to rising seas with a bipartisan panel from Virginia’s congressional delegation.”

The local Virginian-Pilot newspaper accordingly called Kaine “perhaps the region’s loudest voice in Washington calling for a coordinated attack backed by federal funding” on the sea level rise issue. The Richmond Times-Dispatch, meanwhile, credited Kaine with bringing Republicans along to support action to address rising seas in the region by highlighting its national security consequences.

“It’s one thing to deny climate change to a friendly crowd on the campaign trail,” the paper editorialized. “It’s something else entirely to deny it in front of an angry admiral who’s worried about the fate of his ports.”

The ultimate end game for the area, said Atkinson, must be for a New Orleans-style solution: Major construction of seawalls and other defenses to stave off the sea, which requires vast federal planning and expenditures. He says this process is already beginning through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We’re going into a new phase now, all the mayors are agreeing that they’ve got to get together on this, there’s no argument about what’s happening,” Atkinson said.

Some environmental activists have faulted Kaine for being too favorable to fracking. And when you listen to Kaine talk about the sea level problem, it isn’t as though he speaks as a climate change crusader. The language is practical, no nonsense.

But it’s that very combination of avoiding polarization, and focusing on the hard-to-ignore national defense implications of rising seas, that seems to have made Kaine effective on the issue.