With new roadmap to combat rising seas, Virginia officially acknowledges the threat of climate change

With new roadmap to combat rising seas, Virginia officially acknowledges the threat of climate change
Gov. Ralph Northam announces Virginia's Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework in Norfolk on Oct. 22, 2020. (Source: Office of the Governor)

Virginia will no longer sidestep recognition that climate change is occurring and poses an existential threat to the state’s way of life, shoreline, economies and resources, a new planning document released by Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration Thursday reveals.

The report, called the Coastal Resilience Master Planning Framework, heralds a shift in the Old Dominion’s approach to an issue on which more than 99 percent of global scientists have reached consensus but is still frequently portrayed as controversial in state and national politics.

“To date, Virginia has slowly advanced efforts to study and mitigate coastal flooding without stating unequivocally that climate change is the root cause of the problem,” the framework announced Tuesday reads. "This approach, born of political necessity, has led to tortured titles like the Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency and the Joint Subcommittee to Recommend Short-Term and Long-Term Strategies Minimizing the Impact of Recurrent Flooding and Coastal Storms.

“More importantly,” it continues, “it has hampered honest dialogue and broader understanding of the challenges we face.”

Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler called the acknowledgment that climate change is the primary driver of sea-level rise and other major climatic shifts like increased precipitation, rising temperatures and more frequent and intense storm events like hurricanes a “logical kind of follow” to past policy discussions.

“People who live in coastal Virginia are seeing these impacts every day,” he said. “We felt it was really important to be clear about the science. This is something that we’ve studied a lot and have a high degree of certainty that these impacts are coming and that we need to prepare for them.”

Despite the scientific agreement, however, many state and local politicians have been reluctant to openly voice a position on climate change. Virginia Beach officials, The Virginian-Pilot has reported, “rarely, if ever, utter the words ‘climate change’” and “specifically avoid attributing any such change directly to humans.”

In the General Assembly, a joint resolution put forward during the 2020 regular session by Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, that declared “global warming caused by human activity that increases emissions of greenhouse gases have resulted in a climate and ecological emergency” was received along partisan lines in the House, with all support coming from Democrats and all opposition from Republicans. The resolution died in the Senate Rules Committee, where Chair Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, told Guzman the Senate no longer approves resolutions memorializing the legislature’s position or “foreign policy resolutions.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.