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How to Keep Virginia From Sinking

Virginia is worsening its own climate change risks through inaction. Here's how it can get back on track.
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Hampton Roads from space. (Photo: Public Domain)

Hampton Roads from space. (Photo: Public Domain)

Virginia's coastal dwellers face some of the nation's most severe climate change-related hazards. The entire East Coast is experiencing worsening storm surges as seas rise, but flooding risks along Old Dominion's shorelines are exacerbated because the ground there is naturally subsiding. Meanwhile, currents that have traditionally kept the brunt of hurricanes at bay are shifting, which some fear will expose the state to greater risks from severe tempests.

And how much money do you suppose the state is spending on adapting to these climate dangers?

According to James McGarry, the chief policy analyst at the non-profit Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the answer to that question is pretty much "Nada." Despite the severe risks that Virginia faces from a warming climate, McGarry said that the state's leadership is doing less than the leaders of many other states to address the problems.

George Mason University conducted phone polling last summer and found that 85 percent of 2,000 respondents understood that climate change is happening. About half of them said they had personally felt its effects.

"Basically, there is no dedicated state funding right now for adaptation," McGarry says. "The Army Corps of Engineers is providing all the funding for adaptation. The status quo is that Virginia is completely reliant on federal funds."

That's not to say that Virginians are oblivious to global warming's dangers. George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication conducted phone polling last summer and found that 85 percent of 2,000 respondents understood that climate change is happening. About half of them said they had personally felt its effects.

Fortunately, state action could be just around the corner. On July 1, Governor Terry McAuliffe reconvened a commission of experts to make recommendations about how the state could address climate change. Coincidentally, a week later, McGarry's group published a 60-page report that could help guide those efforts.

The report includes 10 recommendations. The first five deal with reducing the amount of greenhouse gas pollution produced within the state through energy efficiency and renewable energy mandates and other projects. The second five deal with climate adaptation:

  • Stabilize shorelines and buffer storm surges by replanting long-lost marshes, wetlands, and other "living shorelines." Using concrete and rip rap to protect neighborhoods and infrastructure can simply push flooding problems to other areas. Ecosystems, on the other hand, can absorb and hold the extra water for a time—and improve water quality.
  • Develop retreat strategies from shorelines. "[T]there is an increasing need for state and local planners to consider strategic retreat and to focus on moving economic growth away from vulnerable areas," the report states.
  • Improve emergency planning. One study found that one million people might need to be evacuated from the Hampton Roads region ahead of a hurricane, and that there would a severe shortfall of emergency shelter.
  • Work with the military to protect its substantial regional assets from flooding and storms.
  • Find a way of paying for all of this. The group suggests that the state join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which could charge power plants $200 million a year in pollution fees. That cash could be re-invested in helping the region adapt to climate change. "It's an elegant funding mechanism," McGarry says.