Virginia’s heat climbs while leaders nap

Let’s say you’re inclined to think that the whole climate-change conversation is, okay, overheated. It’s a swelter out there, but so what? It’s July in Virginia, right? 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.

This threat is not distant in space or time. It’s immediate and right here in the Bristol area. According to the University of Virginia Climatology Office, if the warming trend here in Virginia continues to rise at the same rate it has since the mid-1970s, it will surpass 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit of additional heat — that’s a statewide annual average — by around 2050.

Your grandkids will be right in the middle of that. Worldwide, that much heat has been characterized as “could be dangerous” by climate scientists.

Over sixty percent of Virginia is forested. As the heat trend continues, we risk losing huge expanses of those forests to fires and heat-stimulated insects (that’s already happening in western states).

You can also see that troubled horizon in projections made by climate physicists Katharine Hayhoe and Sharmistha Swain of Texas Tech. On average each year, the Bristol area saw about nine days that were 90 and above, during the last three decades of the 1900s. But climate disruption will be 47 days by around the year 2065. That means we’ll be living with almost seven 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 called 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. Do we want to take the chance?

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, Dominion Energy, Appalachian Power. Ask your current political representatives or candidates in the upcoming elections why that is and what they’ll do about it. 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 indeed 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 … What was it? Oh yeah, January 2014. Republicans, predictably, condemned the governor’s new move as “overreach” that will slow economic growth. Z-z-z-z-z — the usual sleepwalk.

Already in the state’s most populous area, 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 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 almost 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.

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

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. 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.

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

Stephen Nash

Editors Note: this op-ed has been re-posted with the author’s permission, and originally appeared here.

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