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Virginia’s heat climbs while leaders nap

By Stephen Nash

The climate threat is not distant in space nor time. It’s immediate, and right here in the Suffolk area.

If trends of increasing heat since 1977 continue at the current rate, warming will surpass 3.6 degrees 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.

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). And then, the heat continues to rise, quickly.

You can also see that troubled horizon in projections made by climate physicists Katharine Hayhoe and Sharmistha Swain of Texas Tech. On average, the Suffolk area saw about 28 days that were 90 degrees Fahrenheit and above during the last three decades of the 1900s.

But climate disruption means there will be 94 such days by around the year 2065. That means we’ll be living with about 13 weeks of stifling heat, 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.

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, perhaps hoping the problem will just go away. 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 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 new move as “overreach” that will slow economic growth.

Already, the state’s most populous areas, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, have chronic flooding — 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.

It will also 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. For some, it’s a kind of political religion. That will change 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. Ask your state delegates and senators and candidates running for state offices this fall: What’s the plan?

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

Stephen Nash is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever — How Climate Change Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests.” Email him at snash@richmond.edu.