Stephen Nash, a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond, is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines, and Forests.”
I’ve been looking at newspaper front pages from 75 years ago, and they make me wonder. On most of those days in 1944, about four out of five of the Page 1 headlines charted the progress of World War II, month in and month out. Our heads were full of news from strange places in middle Europe or the Pacific — Lwow, Saipan, St. Lo.
Absolutely appropriate. What could have been more important for the world or Virginia? It was a common thing for families to mount world maps and use pushpins to mark the battle lines each day of the war.
And a few days ago, buried in the online screen pile or the back pages of many news outlets was a rarer kind of news coverage. It’s about another fateful turn of human history even greater in scale than the last world war. The July we just got through was Earth’s hottest in the 140 years of global climate records, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency adds that “nine of the 10 hottest Julys have occurred since 2005 — with the last five years ranking as the five hottest. Last month was also the 43rd consecutive July and 415th consecutive month with above-average global temperatures.”
Those data points fit right in with Virginia’s own climate record. The Climatology Office at the University of Virginia provided me with the record of average annual temperatures, statewide, over the past four decades. They vary from year to year, as climate always does, but the trend line is obvious: It’s getting hotter. That will continue into the distant future — and, of course, the line may get even steeper, especially if our energy policies do not change. Virginia’s shorelines are already moving landward, inundating coastal cities and natural areas. Our agriculture, wildlife and forests — they cover 60 percent of the state — are at accelerating risk from heat, drought and insect infestations, scientists tell us.
Climate physicists at Texas Tech University, using a combination of well-tested climate models, project that by about 2065, if the world does not move quickly away from burning fossil fuels, Northern Virginia will swelter through 90 days of temperatures that are 90 degrees or hotter each year, on average. That’s about three times as many of those 90-plus days as occurred in the climate we used to live within, in your earlier lifetime at the end of the 20th century. And the heat keeps climbing from there.
Climate disruption’s previews and consequences — rapidly vanishing polar ice, sea-level rise and record forest fires, floods and hurricanes — are already in plain sight. But here in Virginia the battle has, oddly, not been joined, and the threat seems obscured. When the heirs of our decisions today look back at the equivalent of “front pages” 75 years from now, they will ask: Where was daily news about the epic battle to ward off a climate catastrophe?
Whether you’re a prayerful citizen or a rugged optimist, you could hope that most of our state government decision-makers, Democrats and Republicans alike, can rouse themselves from the torpor of their everyday politics. You could wait for the fixed beliefs of the current legislative majority — that climate science and observable facts are a myth — to break loose. You could figure that sometime soon in the Virginia General Assembly, the profits of the state-sanctioned monopoly and chief corporate political campaign financier, Dominion Energy, will no longer take precedence over coping with our climate catastrophe.
You can hope and pray for all that, but it’s past time to make an all-out campaign against climate disruption an ongoing demand. We need clean alternative energy — solar and wind power — now.
This is the next world war, alas. You can very quickly find your way to your state senators and delegates at the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP.org). It will cost you only a few keystrokes and voice mails, or a visit to a lawmaker at his or her local offices while the legislature’s not in session. “It’s always better to contact your legislator several months before the annual General Assembly session begins each January,” the site advises. Consider a visit now: “You are more likely to get an appointment and you will have more time to explain your position.”
Aim your demands, too, at the administration of our go-slow Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and his administration. It’s time the battle for clean energy was joined here and moved to the front page.