Virginia Researchers and Planners Warn of Climate Change Impacts on Coastal Areas, As Attorney General Challenges the Science

On 10 February 2010, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC) considered what its staff characterized as a critical issue among its planning priorities: the threat climate change poses to the low lying coastal region of Hampton Roads in southern Virginia.  According to the agenda notes [PDF]:

"While many aspects of climate change are potentially problematic for the region, sea level rise is the primary issue of concern. Hampton Roads is among the most vulnerable regions in the United States in terms of population and infrastructure at risk to sea level rise and associated increases in storm surge. Recent experience with coastal storms provides a hint of things to come."

In his presentation before the HRPDC, staffer Eric Walberg, said "Hampton Roads is second only to New Orleans in terms of population and infrastructure at risk to sea level rise and associated increases in storm surge flooding."

The HRPDC is addressing climate change through its Hampton Roads Climate Change Initiative funded under a 3 year grant project from the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program (under the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality).  According to the VCZM grant description:

"Climate change will likely result in several significant adverse impacts on Hampton Roads including inundation of both developed and natural areas due to sea level rise, increased impacts from severe weather events and associated storm surge, and adverse impacts on coastal and marine ecosystems due to temperature increase and loss of wetlands habitat. "

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) at the College of William and Mary in Glouster Point, Virginia, is "among the largest marine research and education centers in the United States."  Climate change is a major focus of VIMS and in its 2009 Annual Report [PDF], VIM Dean and Director John Wells said:

"Because of Hampton Roads’ vulnerability to climate-change impacts and vital importance to our economy and national security, planning for climate change is a strategic imperative for the Commonwealth and federal agencies."

In December 2008 the Virginia Governor's Commission on Climate Change said in its Climate Change Action Plan [PDF] that "the fact that global climate change is happening and is largely human-caused is now widely accepted."  The commission warned that "Sea level rise is a major concern for coastal Virginia, particularly the highly populated Hampton Roads region."   According to the report, the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee projects that sea levels in the area will be 2.3-5.2 feet (0.7-1.6 meters) higher by 2100. 

For additional information about the commission's findings, see our posting, Coastal Cities of Southern Virginia Among the Most Vulnerable in U.S. to Climate Change by mid-Century (10 January 2010).  The posting also discusses a recent WWF study that found that Virginia Beach (in the Hampton Roads region) was identified as one of the top 20 cities in the world with the highest increase in exposed assets associated with a 26 inch sea-level rise and a large storm surge in mid-century.  The study estimates that the current asset exposure is $84.6 million. Exposure by mid-century could be $462 million.

At the end of 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded:

"The most serious potential adverse effects [of climate change] are the increased risk of storm surge and flooding in coastal areas from sea level rise and more intense storms. Observed sea level rise is already increasing the risk of storm surge and flooding in some coastal areas. The conclusion in the assessment literature that there is the potential for hurricanes to become more intense (and even some evidence that Atlantic hurricanes have already become more intense) reinforces the judgment that coastal communities are now endangered by human-induced climate change, and may face substantially greater risk in the future. Even if there is a low probability of raising the destructive power of hurricanes, this threat is enough to support a finding that coastal communities are endangered by greenhouse gas air pollution. In addition, coastal areas face other adverse impacts from sea level rise such as land loss due to inundation, erosion, wetland submergence, and habitat loss. The increased risk associated with these adverse impacts also endangers public welfare, with an increasing risk of greater adverse impacts in the future."

EPA made that statement in its Endangerment and Cause or Contribute Findings for Greenhouse Gases under the Clean Air Act, commonly referred to as its "endangerment finding," a document that constitutes the basis for the Federal government's planned regulations to curb greenhouse gas emissions.  Unless emissions are dramatically reduced in the U.S. and worldwide, the long term impacts to coastal areas in Virginia -- and worldwide -- will be far more devastating.

Yet on 17 February 2010, the Attorney General for Virginia, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, sued the EPA over its endangerment finding, saying that he was against what he characterized as an "anti-growth, anti-freedom, political agenda that's based on a radical philosophy and not on good science."  Cuccinelli claimed that the EPA's conclusions were based on "falsified data" --  "data that was intentionally manipulated to sell the world on the idea that carbon dioxide emitted as a result of human activity was causing global warming." 

At the same time, Cuccinelli claimed -- without substantiation -- that curbing emissions would have a "severe impact on the people of Virginia and on Virginia's economy."  He said nothing whatsoever about the devastating impacts climate change will have on Virginia, even though in his words "I have seven kids who are going to live on this planet for the rest of their lives."

Cuccinelli's move, supported by Virginia's Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, prompted rebukes from several noted climate scientists at the prestigious University of Virginia.  Palaeoclimatologist and professor emeritus William Ruddiman, said: "Actions that produce climates greatly different from today carry great risk. And at this point we are headed in that direction." See Refuting Cuccinelli Denier Petition, Virginia Climate Scientists See "Great Risk" From Greenhouse Gases (Wonk Room, 18 February 2010).

The Virginia-Pilot newspaper responded with a blistering editorial, State's top lawman takes aim at science (19 February 2010), saying: 

"Virginians knew it wouldn't take long for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to focus his attention and office on furthering his political agenda and ambitions. The surprise, perhaps, is that it took him a whole month to put Virginia embarrassingly ahead of Texas as an opponent of science and the source of states-rights nonsense....You'd think the attorney general of a state with one of the places most vulnerable to rising sea levels - that would be Hampton Roads - would be sensitive to the concerns of constituents. Instead, he's decided to pick an expensive losing fight with a federal agency that has science and the Constitution on its side."

The Virginia-Pilot added that Cuccinelli "says his move is based on new information, specifically the minor tempests surrounding stolen e-mails from climate scientists in Great Britain and small problems with a massive report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."  The editorial concludes:

"Neither problem even begins to undermine the science that has concluded that the planet is warming and that man is probably causing it. But the global-warming denial industry - sponsored by energy companies and their political supporters - has succeeded in pretending that it has.

Here's the interesting thing, though: Cuccinelli was convinced that global warming was bunk long before either the stolen e-mails were released or the minor problems were found in the IPCC report. The attorney general was convinced before any of the discovery of the evidence he cited at Wednesday's press conference.

That's probably not how Virginians want the state's top lawman to reason: Reach a verdict first, then consider only the evidence that supports it."

Online Resources

Hampton Roads Planning District Commission:

 Commonwealth of Virginia, Office of the Attorney General

State's top lawman takes aim at science.  Editorial (19 February 2010), Virginia-Pilot.

Hampton Roads in 'dire straits' because of global warming predictions, says expert Daily Press, 16 February 2010.

Coastal Cities of Southern Virginia Among the Most Vulnerable in U.S. to Climate Change by mid-Century .  WWF Climate Blog, 10 January 2010.

Refuting Cuccinelli Denier Petition, Virginia Climate Scientists See "Great Risk" From Greenhouse Gases .  Wonk Room, 18 February 2010.

Lawsuits Against EPA Misrepresent Climate Science.  Press release (22 February 2010) from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Virginia Institute of Marine Science:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


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