To the editor:
We are all familiar with the global predictions concerning climate change: melting ice caps, rising seas and the mass movement of climate refugees. What many don’t realize, however, is how a warming world will affect their own backyard.
While predictions vary, it appears unlikely that the global community will reign in emissions quickly enough to avoid an eventual planet-wide temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the safety threshold supported by most climate scientists. The Climate Research Center based in the University of Massachusetts notes that we are currently on track to reach the 2 degrees Celsius limit by 2050. The Climate Action Tracker reports that even if all pledges made in the Paris Accords are kept, we will see a 2.7 degrees Celsius rise by 2100.
This means that in the coming decades, Virginia may shed its temperate climate and begin to resemble the southern states of Alabama and Louisiana. Without a change in the global release of emissions, the number of 90 degree days in Virginia could spike from 22 to 53. This trend will impact thousands of homes, several economically important ecosystems and the health of residents across the state.
Coastal communities may feel the strongest effects. The ODU Center for Sea Level Rise concludes that the Hampton Roads area is the second most vulnerable in the U.S., following only New Orleans in its susceptibility to rising seas. In the case of severe weather events, even minor sea level increases can magnify the impact of storm surges, causing costly damage to homes and infrastructure. This phenomenon threatens 400,000 Virginia homes and could cost up to $92 billion in reconstruction.
In addition to human habitats, climate change will endanger a number of important natural ecosystems across the state. Forests will likely die in greater numbers under the stress of more extreme temperatures. Invasive species, which often thrive in hotter climates, already have killed some species of trees. This will affect more than just the sentimentalities of “tree huggers” and sensitive hipster types — forests provide invaluable water filtration services and sequester the carbon that is at the root of the global climate shift.
Beyond the wooded wilderness, tidal marshes face inundation by rising seas. This effect will impact several economically important species that depend upon such ecosystems for food, including crabs, striped bass and trout. Water exceeding 86 degrees Fahrenheit could become intolerable for eelgrass that houses the blue crab, a commodity which generated $46 million in 2004.
Heat stress will also reduce crop yields, while drought and water shortages may threaten $472 million in crop production by 2050. More carbon dioxide may actually help plants grow, but it is associated with declining protein content as well. In the long run, Virginia residents may end up eating more food to get the same nutritional value.
Dietary concerns, however, may take a backseat to other pressing health issues. Rising temperatures will make life worse for the state’s 163,000 children and 554,000 adults with asthma, as well as contribute to the buildup of harmful smog. Virginia will become a more suitable home for diseases like West Nile Virus and Lyme disease than ever before.
In the face of such a future, filled with a host of new environmental challenges, it is heartening to discover that the overwhelming majority of Virginia residents believe in the existence of climate change. Curious, though, is the fact that only 47 percent believe that scientists agree it is driven by human activity. In fact, climate experts are virtually unanimous in supporting one stark truth: humans are heating the Earth at an unprecedented rate.
Perhaps it is this confusion that allows that General Assembly to avoid investing in solar energy and stall on making plans to deal with coastal flooding. Dominion Energy and Appalachian Power have certainly capitalized on this lack of determined consensus, contributing large sums to state government representatives, helping ensure a passive and bumbling response to the issues most threatening Virginia.
For the last several decades, climate change has been the problem of distant islands and developing nations. Policy makers in the state and elsewhere have consistently shifted their responsibilities to successive generations. Now, though, we are at a crossroads. Either the state may mobilize a quick response to offset the worst of these problems, or allow citizens to drown in more ways than one. Whatever global leaders decide, climate change is here to stay, and the future of Virginian homes, jobs and health depends upon how local leaders adapt.