Del. Ken Plum: Keeping Our Heads Above Water

This is a commentary from Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

Any report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is met with skepticism in some quarters, because these were the same people whose findings found that climate is changing and that human behavior is one of the causes.

The so-called “climate change deniers” continue to insist, regardless of the scientific evidence to the contrary, that humans are not to blame if there is any change in the climate. We can deny the latest report of the UCS, “When Rising Seas Hit Home,” at our own peril, especially in Virginia.

The scientists found that “important consequences of climate change are more subtle and slower moving than disasters. One such consequence is sea level rise. Unlike the catastrophic flooding that can accompany hurricanes, sea level rise impacts can take time to manifest. The final result, late this century and beyond, may be neighborhoods underwater.”

In a state like Virginia, with a major region named “Tidewater,” the impact can be especially great. UCS has identified three Virginia communities that will face chronic inundation by 2035, and 21 more by 2100. In the highest level scenario considered by the scientists, 38 communities would be exposed to chronic inundation by the end of the century. Visit the website to see a list of communities that will be hardest hit. Of little surprise is the finding that in the highest scenario, by 2080, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton and the Naval Air Station would have up to a quarter of their land chronically flooded.

These findings should come as no surprise to Virginians. In 2015, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) completed a study on this issue at the request of the General Assembly. Its report, “Recurrent Flooding Study for Tidewater Virginia,” found that “recurrent flooding already impacts all localities in Virginia’s coastal zone and is predicted to worsen over reasonable planning horizons of 20 to 50 years due to sea level rise, land subsidence, and other factors.” The scientists wisely did not use the term “climate change,” which continues to be politically charged among some of Virginia’s political leaders.

Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded a grant to VIMS that, along with its match, will total $1.25 million to support “nature-based infrastructure” to help coastal Virginia counter and recover from flood events. Nature-based infrastructure includes tidal wetlands and living shorelines that can help to blunt and even absorb the effects of rising seas and recurrent flooding.

These efforts are important, but the UCS found even bolder policy changes and enhanced coordination among all levels of government must happen to protect our coastal areas. UCS concluded its report, “And even as the Trump administration seeks to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, we must work at state and local levels and with other nations to cut global warming emissions aggressively in order to help slow the pace of sea level rise.” Maybe then we can keep our heads above water!

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