Human-driven climate change creates many challenges for humanity from driving mounting extinction rates (and thus reducing biodiversity and undermining ecosystems) to disrupted weather patterns to fostering more extreme weather events to … yep, that list is distressingly long. Many of these risks and threats are difficult to project with exactitude: yes, climate change will lead to more extreme precipitation events, but no one could have predicted Houston getting inundated by Hurricane Harvey’s 50 inches of rain a year or even a month ahead of time.
Some threats are, however, measurable with some exactitude. Sea level rise (SLR) is one of those.
Based on extensive scientific research and monitoring,
- We know, with certainty, that the seas are rising at a faster rate.
- We know, with certainty, that there are multiple factors at play
- Global factors
- heat expanding the oceans
- land-ice melting adding to volume,
- local factors that are both
- natural elements like land shifts (subsidence) and ocean flows (eastern coasts, due to earth’s rotation, have additional sea level impacts compared to west coasts) and
- direct human action like excessive groundwater withdrawals.
- Global factors
- We know, with certainty, that Virginia (Virginia Beach, Hampton Roads, Norfolk, …) is uniquely threatened by these above factors.
With that reality in mind, there have been serious efforts over the past decade to gain a better understanding of the risks to the region and develop viable adaptation pathways for whatever level of sea level rise does occur in the coming decades and century (centuries). A core portion of this has been the Old Dominion University Resilience Collaborative, which has played a role in pulling together key actors (like the Department of Defense, local governments, major employers) for discussion and planning work. Under the Obama Administration, this work was one of the leading examples of federal-local collaboration for developing resilience approaches as government officials (at all levels) sought paths forward for both climate mitigation (reducing future impacts via, for example, reducing pollution loads) and adaptation (developing paths to deal with inevitable climate impacts, such as the sea level rise due to lagging impacts of already occurred carbon pollution). With the climate-science denial of the Republican Party and Donald Trump, such efforts are not currently seriously on the national (federal government) agenda.
Today, Governor Ralph Northam is moving to fill in this gap. Gov. Northam issued Executive Order 24 to create an increased Commonwealth focus to improve Virginia’s resilience to climate change impacts — from buildings better prepared to deal with weather extremes to developing paths for adapting to sea-level rise.
“As extreme weather events become more frequent and more intense, the safety and economic well-being of every Virginian is put at greater risk,” said Governor Northam. “The actions the Commonwealth will undertake as a result of this Executive Order will ensure we address this growing challenge head on, setting Virginia on a path towards resilience to near and long-term natural catastrophes and enhancing our public health and economic vitality with a whole of government approach.”
With EO24, Governor Northam has created a position of Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) for the Commonwealth that will (at least for now) a dual-hat responsibility for the Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew Strickland. EO24 outlines a wide range of tasks and responsibilities, from assessing risks/resiliency of government buildings and facilities to developing a Virginia Coastal Resiliency Plan.
“With this Executive Order, the Commonwealth of Virginia seizes the opportunity to lead in creating new and innovative adaptive concepts and to work across a collaborative group of federal, state, regional and community stakeholders to ensure the vitality and adaptive growth of our coastal communities for our future,” said Special Assistant to the Governor for Coastal Adaptation and Protection Rear Admiral Ann C. Phillips, U.S. Navy (ret’d). “As recent weather and ongoing coastal flooding events in this year alone have shown us, we have no time to waste.”
This EO looks to be serious as a meaningful step forward to incorporating climate change impacts and risks into Virginia governmental planning. As an example, it states that all new-build government projects starting as of 1 January 2020 will have to incorporate sea-level rise and resiliency into their design and planning.
As to ‘serious’, discussing Virginia government and climate change requires mentioning the elephant in the room: construction of fracked-fossil gas pipelines that will be the equivalent, in climate impact, of building 45 new coal-fired power plants. In other words, Virginia’s climate math is clear: the Mountain Valley Pipeline’s and Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s climate impacts overwhelm all the other good incremental measures that Governor Northam is putting into place. E024 is a good step forward while enabling and allowing the construction of this massive additional fossil-foolish infrastructure is the equivalent of two giant leaps backward in terms of worsening the problems that EO24 is meant to address.
Even so, EO24 is a meaningful move toward better Commonwealth governance in the face of climate-change risks. The measures outlined within should increase government resilience to climate change impacts while fostering improved private-sector resiliency. And, with EO24, Governor Northam is putting Virginia in a better position to work, in the future, with a more rational Federal executive structure.
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