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Local Virginia Officials Get Fed Up With Climate Inaction: ‘Somebody Has To Deal With It’

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"Local Virginia Officials Get Fed Up With Climate Inaction: ‘Somebody Has To Deal With It’"

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Flooding in Norfolk, VA during Superstorm Sandy.

Flooding in Norfolk, VA during Superstorm Sandy.

CREDIT: AP/Steve Helber

Elected officials and planners in Virginia are calling on the state to stop debating whether climate change is occurring and tackle it head-on.

A group of 250 emergency planners, regional federal officials, mayors and state representatives from Virginia gathered at the College of William and Mary last week to voice their weariness with the state’s inaction on climate change. The meeting focused on sea level rise, a problem that’s already affecting low-lying areas of Virginia and which was the focus of a state report released in January.

Lewis Lawrence, director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission, said at the meeting that despite evidence of rising sea levels, it’s often difficult to convince the state’s elected officials that climate change is already having an effect in the Virginia. Lawrence said he’s shown lawmakers maps of old islands in Chesapeake Bay that are now immersed under a rising sea. “And people still say, ‘Those islands were never there, they’re making this up,’” he said.

“I’m often hit with the idea that there’s no proof that (climate change) is happening,” Lawrence said. “And I say, ‘There’s plenty of proof,’ and I’ll pull out the Sewell’s Point tide gauge, and they say, ‘Oh, they make that stuff up.’”

Virginia State Senator John Watkins (R) said at the meeting that debating climate science was counterproductive and something “people like Ken Cuccinelli want to do.”

“The fact of the matter is, we’ve got rising waters,” Watkins said. “We’ve got recurrent flooding. There are more 100-year storms in the last 15 years than we’ve ever seen. Somebody has got to deal with it.”

The group has reason for concern. Climate deniers have a strong voice in Virginia’s congressional delegation and at the state level. Tea party influence has affected the state’s decisions on climate change in the past: in 2011, a study of how climate change was affecting the state was approved, but only after tea party members in the state legislature made sure that the words “climate change” and “sea level rise” were struck from the title and replaced with “recurrent flooding.” At the time of the study’s approval, Virginia State Delegate Chris Stolle (R) said terms like “sea level rise” were “liberal code words” that played no role in the study.

And climate change has already taken a major toll on the state. As sea levels rise, salty water is rising up and drowning trees in the state’s wetlands. By the end of the century, sea level in the Chesapeake Bay area is predicted to rise by as much as 5.2 feet, which puts low-lying areas of Virginia at major risk. Already, low-lying Norfolk is flooding more often during storms, and as of 2012, the city spends about $6 million a year to elevate roads and houses, and improve drainage.

The issue is getting renewed attention in the state with this year’s governor’s race. Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli is a strong supporter of the coal industry who doubts climate science, a position Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s campaign has capitalized on, targeting Cuccinnelli for his legal battle against climate scientist Michael Mann. Accepting climate science should prove beneficial to a candidate in the state, at least according to polls — a recent survey found about 85 percent of Virginians believe climate change is occurring, and 49 percent believe it has already harmed the state or will do so within the next decade.

(H/T The Daily Climate)

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