Virginia’s summer has been only slightly warmer than average, according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center. No big deal.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has told the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to propose regulations to reduce carbon pollution at power plants — but not until just before he leaves office in January, and with no set goals for those cuts. He has been governor since 2014.
Republicans reflexively condemned the governor’s ever-so-slight move as “overreach” that will slow economic growth.
Soggy shoes or smoke on the horizons should wake our leaders up. They’ve seen, after all, Irma, which had wind speeds of more than 185 mph for 37 hours — the longest on record. Harvey set a U.S. record for rainfall in one place. Hurricane Maria’s strike on Puerto Rico on Wednesday was the strongest storm to hit the island in more than 80 years. That’s three Category 4 hurricanes to make landfall in the United States in one year, another tragic first. And Jose still lurks in the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service has spent more than $2 billion so far to fight dozens of forest “mega-fires” around the country — another record in a string of lengthening and intensifying fire seasons. More than 13,000 square miles have burned across 10 states.
For Virginia, too, the climate change threat is not safely distant, in some other place or a hazy future. It’s immediate, and it’s right here.
Sea-level rise continues to encroach on the state’s long shorelines. Already Norfolk and Virginia Beach have chronic flooding — about half of it the result of sea-level rise caused by global warming as it heats the oceans and melts polar ice caps.
Our coastal waters could be about 1.5 feet higher sometime between 2030 and 2050, according to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. That’s enough to drown or put at risk several billion dollars’ worth of commercial and residential real estate, dozens of miles of highways and rails and a third of our port facilities. And it’s just the first increment.
Even more irreparably, sea-level rise will mean the loss of Virginia’s coastal wetlands, perhaps all of them. Wetlands support dozens of kinds of commercially valuable fish and innumerable wildlife species and are a major defense against floods.
More than 60 percent of Virginia is forested. As the state’s warming trend continues, scientists project that we risk losing many of our own forests to fires and heat-stimulated insect eruptions.
You can also see our troubled horizon in projections made by climate physicists Katharine Hayhoe and Sharmistha Swain of Texas Tech. On average, the Northern Virginia area saw about a month of days that were at least 90 degrees each year during the last three decades of the 1900s. But climate disruption will triple that by around the year 2065. We’ll be living with about three months of swelter, the projections suggest, if the world continues to use the atmosphere as an open sewer for greenhouse-gas emissions from electric power plants, car exhausts and burning forests in the “business as usual” scenario.
Looked at another way, Virginia’s climate will be something like South Carolina’s by mid-century and like Louisiana’s or Alabama’s by the end of the century. If the world works very hard very quickly on the greenhouse-gas problem, climate change could slow. It could level off by 2100.
Virginia’s political leaders have a serious case of the slows, though, perhaps hoping the problem will just go away. Maybe it’s explained, in part, by the fact that a major fraction of their campaign donations come from fossil fuel-based corporations such as Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power.
Compared with other states, Virginia is falling behind in the push for rapid conversion to solar power (especially home-based solar) and reining in carbon emissions, aggressive fuel economy requirements for cars and plans for sea-level rise impacts.
In Virginia’s Republican-dominated legislature, climate change isn’t about science; it’s about what’s expedient. For some, it’s a kind of political religion. That will change, of course, as the disruption accelerates. No political leader who doesn’t respond to a threat of this scale and intensity will be electable. But the longer we take to engage with reality, the steeper our losses will be.
It’s way past time for us to prod the state’s leaders hard: Get serious about Virginia’s climate future and our role in global warming and reform our politics to rid them of the undertow of fossil fuel money. The years 2016, 2015 and 2014 were the hottest on record around the planet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. How long will any political party or state stay in denial?
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.”
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