As sea levels rise, report faults Va.’s climate preparedness
The National Resource Defense Council report called Virginia’s preparedness “limited.”
It praised former Gov. Tim Kaine’s Commission on Climate Change for recommending proactive measures to protect Virginia against the effects of warming, but said that Gov. Bob McDonnell, who took office in 2010, failed to further the work of Kaine’s commission.
“Unfortunately, with the election of a new governor in 2010, there appears to be little progress in the implementation of these recommendations,” the report said. “In light of these developments, there are very few efforts at the state level aimed at preparing the state for climate change impacts.”
For example, Kaine’s commission suggested that Virginia “lead by example” and reduce greenhouse gas emissions within the state while also encouraging federal action to combat warming.
But, McDonnell chose not to revive Kaine’s commission, and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli joined in a 2010 lawsuit against the EPA, arguing that the agency did not have the authority to regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act.
In addition, the first significant threat identified by Kaine’s commission involved rising sea levels and their impact on Virginia’s tidewater region.
In its final report, the commission stated that sea level rise was a “major concern” for coastal Virginia and that infrastructure, tourism, and the world’s largest naval installation were all at risk.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global sea levels rose at a rate of about 1.8 millimeters per year between 1961 and 2003 — that’ about three inches over four decades. Norfolk’s rise has been steeper, reaching a rate of 1.46 feet per century in the years since 1927.
Global sea levels will rise between seven inches and two feet during the next century, according to the IPCC, depending on a number of environmental factors, including emission levels for carbon dioxide and other compounds.
Even a one-foot rise in sea level by 2050 could cost Virginia more than $190 million in infrastructure and wetland damage, according to research cited in the NRDC report. Additionally, such a rise could cause up to 200 feet of shoreline erosion and contaminate fresh water wells and estuaries. Research has found that if the sea rose two feet, 740 square miles of land near Virginia’s coast would be vulnerable to inundation, the report said.
The impacts of rising sea levels have already been felt, with chronic flooding plaguing Norfolk. State legislators voted to approve public funds to study Norfolk’s flooding for the first time during the 2012 session, but they were careful to keep the phrase “climate change” out of the discussion.
“Norfolk is particularly vulnerable because not only is the sea level rising, but the land is actually going down,” explained scientist emeritus Jeff Williams of the U.S. Geological Survey.
In addition to rising sea levels due to human activity, the wetlands upon which Norfolk was built are naturally sinking, compounding the flooding problem.
“We actively tried to frame it as not a climate change issue just because of the political sensitivities,” said Matthew Stricker, the legislative aide for Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk).
Northam and Del. Chris Stolle (R-Virginia Beach/Norfolk) proposed a resolution to set aside $50,000 for a study of flooding associated with rising sea level along Virginia’s coast.
The resolution passed both the Senate and the House of Delegates with near unanimous support and the sponsors said they expected it to be included in the final 2012-13 budget due out this week.
While legislators may not want to say that climate change is playing a role in Norfolk’s predicament, Williams said the science was unequivocal.
“The rate of climate change and the rate of sea level rise is much greater than what you could expect from any sort of natural process,” Williams said. “It doesn’t matter whether they believe it’s due to human activities or not. The fact is that 90 percent or more of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing primarily because of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere over the last 100 years.”
Norfolk Director of Intergovernmental Relations Bryan Pennington said the city had already spent $400,000 on a flood mitigation study and could not continue to bear the costs associated with sea level rise without state and federal help.
“We can’t really get at this on our own; we need help,” Pennington said. “We don’t need to get into this argument about climate change, we have documented evidence to show that the sea level is rising. We’ll leave it to the scientists to determine what the cause is, but we’re trying to protect our city.
“It’s not just an economic impediment, it’s a quality of life impediment,” Pennington said.
Stolle said that focusing on the specific issue of flooding in Norfolk rather than global climate change made the issue more tangible for legislators.
“We didn’t approach this as a climate change issue, we approached this as a flooding issue,” Stolle said. “When we start talking about climate change or abortion, these are political issues that people have locked themselves into one position or another. Rather than trying to solve literally the world’s problems, we should focus on what we want to accomplish locally and what we want to do locally is reduce flooding in Norfolk and the tidewater.”
Pennington said the city had to make the issue palatable at the state level if it hoped to prepare for the problems associated with sea level rise.
“The city of Norfolk has had to get very creative and very vocal about the issues that we’re facing, so we’re happy to get the sea level rise bill passed through the session,” Pennington said. “That will hopefully lead to the discovery of, ‘hey, this is the situation and this is what the localities can do with the resources they have.’”
Williams said that legislators in other states, including Louisiana, also refused to use the term climate change when discussing sea-level rise, but that long-term solutions could only be reached by trusting the science.
“What would be helpful would be if [legislators] had a half-day session where they brought in climate scientists to Richmond to talk about the science and the effect on the Virginia coast,” Williams said. “People who are independent and credible to talk about the state.
“Sea-level rise is going to continue to happen and I don’t see that Norfolk is going to fair very well, or the rest of Virginia for that matter, with just the status quo.”
Pennington said that the city acquired FEMA assistance to raise individual houses and streets in flood-prone areas, but that the issue of sea-level rise requires long-term, macro-level solutions that could eventually cost more than $100 million.
“For so long, the issue has been so large that you don’t even want to admit just how large it is,” Pennington said. “Hopefully the study will be very convincing in terms of taking away the political discussion regarding climate change and focusing on the data.
“The data is irrefutable,” Pennington said. “This is a problem that is going to require comprehensive solutions. We have got to get prepared, especially here in a city that serves as such a significant resource for national security.”
Those solutions, Williams said, involved a two-pronged approach of reducing carbon emissions and planning to adapt to climate changes that will continue to impact the world for the next century.
“The sea-level rise we’re seeing now is a lag from the warming of the past 50 or 100 years,” Williams said, “so even if we were to stabilize carbon dioxide, we would continue to see warming and sea level rise for hundreds of years into the future.
“That points out the importance of acting quickly,” Williams said. “We can reduce those impacts on our children and grandchildren by taking action now.”
Multiple phone calls to Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Doug Domenech seeking comment on this story were not returned.