Virginia’s Climate Change Panel Meeting in Richmond

By Steve Szkotak | September 10, 2014

Almost on cue, rain and high tides brought flooding Monday to Norfolk, Virginia, ahead of the first gathering of the state’s new climate change panel.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe will address the Climate Change and Resiliency Commission on Wednesday when its 30-plus members meet in Richmond. The commission’s creation and other actions signal a renewed state effort to blunt sea level change, which is particularly profound in Virginia coastal areas.

The full consequences of climate change are subject to debate, but there is broad agreement the state’s coast is especially vulnerable to flooding from rising seas.

“Those who don’t believe that’s occurring just have to look out our doors,” Jim Redick, Norfolk’s emergency preparedness director, said Tuesday. “We’re experiencing flooding just during our lunar high tide. It doesn’t take a storm anymore.”

Redick will present a series of recommendations to the climate change commission that he helped compile as part of a subcommittee for the Secure Commonwealth Panel, which advises McAuliffe on emergency management issues.

Among the many recommendations in the report, which was released last week, is the establishment of a so-called incident command system. It would knit together various statewide efforts to combat rising seas from a centralized, state vantage.

“I think we’re the only ones in the nation considering applying the incident command system, taking something from the public safety world and applying it to this,” Hedrick said. Otherwise, he said, “It’s every locality for itself.”

The report also starkly frames the issue of rising seas along the state’s coast.

“The breadth of the impact among localities, individual homeowners, the environment, businesses, the economy and national security is staggering,” the report states.

The mention of national security refers to the military’s big footprint in Hampton Roads, including the world’s largest naval base in Norfolk. The military, Redick said, has been aggressive in anticipating sea level rise at installations such as Naval Station Norfolk.

Until McAuliffe revived the climate change panel this summer, the issue had lain dormant in the state for four years.

In creating the commission, McAuliffe said Virginia has an opportunity to be a leader in finding creative ways to mitigate climate change.

Climate scientists have long warned that rising seas pose a unique threat to the Virginia coast, in part because land is sinking around the Chesapeake Bay. That is a legacy of the meteor that gouged out the estuary eons ago.

A report by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which was submitted to state legislators, anticipates a sea level rise of approximately 1.5 feet over the next 20 to 50 years. The report also states that 26 percent of Virginia Beach’s land mass could face flooding over the next half century, waterlogging 289 miles of roads in the tourist city.

Besides the climate change panel, which is co-chaired by McAuliffe Cabinet secretaries, rising seas are likely to be the focus of legislation in the 2015 General Assembly.

After a period of neglect, the environmental issue is expected to be at the forefront in Virginia in the coming months and years.

The climate commission will present its report next summer.

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