Now that a new governor has taken the helm of Virginia's executive branch, the climate is changing for science. More to the point, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is reconvening a panel that was originally created by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine when he was governor, a commission that worked for a year and issued dozens of recommendations for how Virginia might deal with the growing threat of climate change. But then Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell was elected and the panel was disbanded.
"As far as I know, there was no action whatsoever on any of those recommendations," said Jim Kinter, director of the Center for Ocean-Land Atmosphere Studies. "But a lot has happened since then."
For starters, a number of significant reports have detailed the growing threat of climate change. That includes an assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as a report from a working group of the panel detailing impacts of climate change. Yet another report came out in May from the U.S. Global Change Research Program. But perhaps the biggest change has been a partisan one, as Democrats take control over departments and agencies in Richmond.
"I think people ignore climate change at their own peril, and this governor is not going to do that," said Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, who will serve as a co-chair of the panel. "The underlying function here is — let’s call this what it is — it's climate change, and it's having serious repercussions in a number of areas of the commonwealth, including security as well as the environment as well as economic development."
THE GOVERNOR announced the new commission Tuesday in Virginia Beach on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, where the governor signed Executive Order 19, convening the Governor’s Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission. McAuliffe was joined by Moran and and the other co-chair of the panel, Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward. Other members of the commission include local elected officials, members of the General Assembly, business leaders, environmental advocates, faith leaders and industry representatives.
“We need to prepare Virginia’s coastal communities to deal with the growing threat of climate change," said McAuliffe. “Virginia has the opportunity not only to be a leader in finding creative ways to mitigate climate change in the future but also to adapt to the effects of climate change that we have already begun to see here in the Commonwealth."
The first goal of the commission will be to evaluate the recommendations issued by the Kaine commission in 2008 and determine which ones need to be updated. The executive order sets out a one-year deadline for the panel to complete its work and offer a new set of recommendations. Environmental advocates said time is of the essence, especially considering the years of inaction on the issue by the McDonnell administration.
"Climate change science has evolved a great deal in the last five or six years," said former Lt. Gov. Don Beyer, who served on the Kaine commission. "We know so much more about what's happening to the planet, and to Virginia."
NORTHERN VIRGINIA will be at the center of problems associated with climate change because of its position on the Potomac River. Many of the houses in Old Town Alexandria are within a few feet of the river, and mansions in Mount Vernon could be compromised during extreme weather. The most recent report from the Global Change Research Program warned that the change in sea level associated with climate change is greatest in the eastern Mid-Atlantic coast, which includes the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva Peninsula.
"If you had a tropical cyclone or a tropical storm that came up the Chesapeake, the storm surge and associated damage would be significantly worse than what we have from the historical record," said Kinter. "If one of those storms were to come up the Chesapeake, Northern Virginia would be in the crosshairs."
By some estimates, the sea level may rise by a foot or more in the next 50 years. One report estimated that the expected costs from tropical cyclones are likely to double in the next 25 years. The issue is particularly troubling in the Chesapeake Bay because the Delmarva Peninsula is sinking as part of a retreat from the last ice age. That creates a vexing combination for Northern Virginia, where the combination of a sinking peninsula and rising tidal influence has the potential for dramatic change in the next few years.
“By signing this executive order, Governor McAuliffe is re-dedicating Virginia to addressing the costly and increasingly dangerous impacts of climate change," said Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. "We applaud Governor McAuliffe for taking this step forward just six months into his term. Indeed, we don’t have a moment to lose."
PERHAPS NO OTHER area finds itself more at risk than Old Town Alexandria, where city leaders hope to construct a six-foot floodwall as part of the waterfront plan. City officials say the move is partially in response to rising sea levels and partially in response to recurring flooding that already happens on lower King Street — man-made land that was created in the 18th and 19 centuries. Some of the waterfront is already at six feet, while other parts are currently at two feet.
"It's' not a significant height increase," said Anthony Gammon, a civil engineer with the Department of Project Implementation. "But it does provide a significant level of flood mitigation above what's there today."
The floodwall proposal is not without detractors, especially considering it was part of a land-use plan that more than doubles density at three sites along the waterfront compared to what's there now. Critics say raising the elevation of the waterfront will end up trapping water on the land, denying it an opportunity to drain and swamping the pumps designed to get rid of it.
"It's overkill," said John Kupersmith, vice president of an Alexandria-based marine and environmental engineering firm. "Its efficiency can be duplicated at a fraction of the height, and it does not protect Alexandria from storms."