Virginia's heat climbs while its leaders nap

Let's say you're inclined to think that the whole climate-change conversation is, OK, overheated. It's a swelter out there, but so what? Summer just ended in Virginia.

Give me a minute, just the same, to make the case that it's way past time to get a lot more serious about Virginia's climate future. The threat is not far off. It's immediate, and right here in the Williamsburg area.

The University of Virginia Climatology Office states Virginia has been warming quickly since the mid-1970s. If the trend continues at this rate, the state’s annual average temperature will be 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it was then, by around mid-century.

Your grandkids will be right in the middle of it.

Worldwide, that much heat has been characterized as "could be dangerous" by climate scientists. In fact, it is already dangerous. Irma brought wind speeds of more than 185 miles per hour for 37 hours — the longest on record. Harvey left a U.S. record for rainfall in one place. That's two Category 4 storms to make landfall in the mainland U.S. in one year, another tragic first.

Someone else's problem? Already Norfolk and Virginia Beach, the state's most populous area, have chronic flooding, even without hurricanes — about half of it the result of sea level rise from record melting of the Earth's icecaps. 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 several billion dollars' worth of commercial and residential real estate, dozens of miles of highways and rails, and a third of our port facilities.

Even more irreparable, it will mean the potential loss of Virginia's wetlands. They support a couple dozen kinds of commercially valuable fish and innumerable wildlife species.

Sixty percent of Virginia is forested. As the trend to hotter temperatures continues, we risk losing huge expanses of those forests to fires and heat-spiked insect populations. In the West, 2017 has already seen the loss of 13,000 square miles of forest to wildfires, the latest in a string of record years for forest fires.

You can also see that troubled horizon in projections made by climate physicists Katharine Hayhoe and Sharmistha Swain of Texas Tech.

In an average year during the last three decades of the 1900s, the Williamsburg area saw about 34 days that were 90 degrees and above. But climate disruption will give Williamsburg 98 days over 90 degrees by around the year 2065. That means we'll be living with about 14 weeks of stifling heat, the projections suggest — but only 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. That's the "business as usual" scenario.

Looked at another way, Virginia's climate will be something like South Carolina's by mid-century, and something like Louisiana or Alabama 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 Democrats and Republicans have a serious case of the slows, though, perhaps hoping the problem will just go away.

Maybe that's explained, in part, by where much of their campaign donations come from: fossil fuel corporations, such as Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power. Compared to other states, Virginia is failing to push for rapid conversion to solar power and other renewable energy sources, aggressive fuel economy requirements for cars and planning for the changes we will face.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe 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 took office in January 2014. Republicans, predictably, condemned the governor's move as "overreach" that will slow economic growth.

In our legislature, though, climate disruption isn't about science. It's about what's expedient or, for some, it's a kind of political religion. That will change, of course, as the disruption accelerates. Any political leader who doesn't respond to a threat of this scale and intensity will be unelectable. But the longer we take to engage with reality, the steeper our losses will be.

So ask your incumbent state delegates who are running for re-election this November: What is the plan? Gordon Helsel (R-91), Mike Mullin (D-93), Cia Price (D-95), and Brenda Pogge (R-96) all take campaign cash from Dominion Energy, our local fossil fuel-heavy power company. New candidates running for those House of Delegates this November: Michael Wade (D-91), Heather Cordasco (R-93), and Kelly DeLucia (R-96). Wade and Delucia have pledged to take no money from Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power, another coal-burner.

And finally, Senators Tommy Norment (R-3), Maime Locke (D-2) and Monty Mason (D-1) — they all take Dominion campaign donations, too. What's their climate change plan?

The years 2016, 2015 and 2014 were the hottest on record across the planet, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. How long will any political party be able to stay "in denial?"

Nash is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever — How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests,” University of Virginia Press (virginiaclimatefever.com). It won the American Institute of Physics 2015 Science Writing Award for Books.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
61°