Suffolk’s heat, and some strange silence

Published 9:59 pm Monday, November 18, 2019

By Stephen Nash

What does the western Suffolk area have in common with Indiana? A consistent vote for conservative candidates, for one thing. And maybe this common ground, too: growing — but largely silent — worries about climate change.

The heat has been gathering fast here in Virginia for decades, according to the State Climatology Office, and will be catastrophic as the trend continues. Sea level rise is already starting to swamp our coastal cities. None of that is in question. Indiana’s feeling its own impacts but they — and we — aren’t talking much about the threat and how to meet it. Why?

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Well, Indiana’s conservatism is not to be doubted. It ranks first among the states in the percentage of its population that identifies as conservative. Its former governor is Vice President Mike Pence. Donald Trump won the state in 2016 by nearly 20 points, and the president calls global climate research “fake science.”

But recent intensive polling and interviewing by Indiana University finds unexpected data: a majority of voters there accept that climate change is real — including 66 percent of Republicans — and their concern is growing. (The figure was 91 percent for Democrats). A strong majority of those polled — 75 percent — support initiatives to address climate change impacts.

Just the same, most of them think that’s a minority opinion, the survey found. And that misperception, IU researcher Matt Houser tells me, is crucial. It means that fewer people want to say much about climate change at all, especially among friends and relatives. They’re afraid they’ll give offense, or be challenged, or that theirs is an isolated, minority opinion without much support in the community.

The paralysis matters. It echoes national research about what’s called “second order opinion”  — beliefs about the beliefs of others. It means we don’t talk as freely about the growing impacts of climate change in Indiana or Virginia — and how to address the threat. And it misleads our conservative local legislators like Delegate Emily Brewer, or state Sen. John Cosgrove. They vote as if they think it’s safe, at least in political terms, to continue ignoring the biggest challenge now facing humankind.

What do folks around Suffolk, including its conservative western precincts, believe about climate change? A long-term Yale University study has just updated its estimates for this area, based on demographics, and they give a hint. Sixty-seven percent of adults believe global warming is happening now.

Fifty-nine percent of adults are worried about the impacts of global warming, and 79 percent support teaching about this issue in local schools. Very strong majorities — 68 to 82 percent — support these policies, according to the estimates: impose strict carbon dioxide limits on power plants; make fossil fuel companies pay a carbon tax; give tax rebates for solar panels and electric cars. Nearly 60 percent agree that “my governor should do more to address global warming.” The statement “environmental protection is more important than economic growth” also has very strong majority support — 70 percent — and about that number are also worried about harm to future generations from global warming.

Pretty clearly, then, most adults around here are anxious about climate change. But if you live here you haven’t been aware, perhaps, that you’re in the majority. So, as in Indiana, you may not be talking this over with friends and family or — crucially — with legislators.

Is it time yet? Well, September was the planet’s warmest September since record-keeping began in 1880, according to our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. September was the 417th consecutive month with above-average global temperatures. That’s 34 years of accelerating heat. It added that 2019 “is a lock to be among the five hottest years in Earth’s recorded history,” and they’ve all occurred since 2014.

It’s easy for you to contact those state delegates and senators. Now’s the best time, while they’re near home, at their local offices. You can find them right away at the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project,, just by typing in your address. Let them know what’s on your mind about climate change. Hear their thinking, and let them hear yours. You’re in the majority. It’s time they learned it.


Stephen Nash, a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond, is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines, and Forests,” published by the University of Virginia Press.