Dramatic changes are on the way: it is going to get a lot hotter, and Hampton Roads residents will eventually have big problems. This is according to Stephen Nash, a visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond, from his book, “Virginia Climate Fever.” This slim volume is filled with startling information, but Nash is not trying to dumbfound his readers; his actual goal is to foster an understanding of the ways in which global warming will transform our local cities, shorelines and forests from today to the end of this century.
Carbon dioxide is invisible and odorless, so it is easy to forget that the Dominion smokestacks at Dutch Gap and our car tailpipes are pumping out large amounts daily. Carbon dioxide in the sky traps solar energy in the form of heat. Nash lists some of the consequences of this by the year 2100 for Virginia: an increase from 40 to 80 days with temperatures over 90 degrees, a rise in the sea level along the Virginia coast from four to seven feet due to ice sheet melting, a disappearance of certain plant and animal species and rising levels of acid in the ocean and Chesapeake Bay.
What about drought? Nash states that we have no way of knowing. But even assuming normal rainfall, drought may be more of an issue than it is today. A hotter world will see higher rates of evaporation from exposed soils; therefore, farmers will have drier land, even if rains continue at today’s levels. In Chesterfield, the sea level rise will not impact us directly, but may send refugees from Hampton Roads to our community.
Nash’s scientific predictions for our local community at the end of this century may seem preposterous, but 97 percent of his fellow climate scientists are predicting a warmer world in 2100. Nash notes that 39 percent of Virginia carbon emission is from electricity generation, and 28 percent is from transportation. He explains that driving those numbers down locally and globally would: make our climate closer to that of North Carolina than Georgia; reduce the average temperature rise to four degrees, instead of nine; slow the damage to shellfish in the Chesapeake Bay and give much needed time for animal and plant species to migrate to cooler areas.
Nash explains that our fate rests in our hands. The seven billion humans on our planet depend on actions taken in Chesterfield, just as the 330,000 residents of Chesterfield depend on the actions of those seven billion others. We are all on the same team. Everyone wins – or, if we fail, everyone loses.
Because of these realities, the next 85 years can be expected to bring changes to our local behaviors. These changes are already beginning with small steps, such as the EPA Clean Power Plan and the fuel efficiency standards for cars that followed the near collapse of the automobile industry in 2009. Fossil fuels continue to power most of our electricity generation and transportation, but renewable energy has seen steep growth in the past few years, as payback periods for rooftop solar have been reduced to 10 years.
If this trend continues in the next few decades, Chesterfield will have solar panels on almost every home and commercial building, and hundreds of large wind turbines will spin offshore from Virginia Beach. Again, this may seem odd to imagine today, but is merely the logical outcome of current political and financial trends. The suburban sprawl culture of Chesterfield County may still survive this shift, if gasoline can be replaced by a different fuel, such as plug-in electric batteries.
As that technology spreads, efficiencies of scale will bring down costs – as we are beginning to see from the ambitious battery program undertaken by Tesla. Such changes require national and international policies to foster them, policies such as “climate fee and dividend.” This legislative proposal backed by Reagan-era Treasury Secretary George Schultz would impose fees on fossil fuels that would be reimbursed to all citizens, thereby pushing consumers toward renewable energy. A “border adjustment” proposal would impose tariffs on trading partner nations who export carbon intensive products, thereby compelling them to take action to reduce their own carbon emissions.
The 186-year-old science of climatology has solidified over the past twenty-five years, and we are indebted to Stephen Nash for his effort to apply it to Virginia. We will need to act upon his information, both locally and globally. Such political, social and economic change can be hard, especially when some choose to disregard the opportunities and focus on the burdens. In time, logic becomes undeniable, and we learn to ignore small issues and focus on the future of our grandchildren. That time is now beginning.