What Climate Change Could Mean to Virginia


As temperatures rise (assuming that they do), will there be coherent paths for species to migrate north? This map shows areas where such migrations might occur, if not disrupted by human activity.

by James A. Bacon

The political debate over catastrophic global warming won’t end until the climate either fulfills the dire forecasts of mainstream climate scientists or refuses to cooperate, thus disproving them. Stephen Paul Nash’s book, “Virginia Climate Fever,” is not likely to change many minds on that score. But if you’re wondering how global warming — if it occurs — might affect Virginia’s climate, Nash presents a sobering picture that should inform the thinking of every Virginian. If he’s right, the commonwealth’s environmental future looks grim indeed.

This may be the most important book written about Virginia’s environment in a generation. Nash, a journalism professor at the University of Richmond, makes the scientific debate over global warming readily accessible to the layman. He writes beautifully, explains the issues clearly, and he anticipates many of the arguments of the Global Warming skeptics. For this book, he traveled the length and breadth of Virginia, from the peak of Mount Rogers, with its threatened oasis of cold-adapted spruce-and-fir forest, to sixty miles off the coast where researchers are studying the marine life of underwater canyons. He synthesizes the work of dozens of scientists working on one part or another of Virginia’s climate change, creating a fuller picture than any of them could on their own. (Full disclosure: Steve is one of my closest friends.)

Broadly speaking, Nash says Global Warming (and the rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that drives it) raises three major concerns:

(1) Temperatures are increasing faster than at any time in millions of years, a trend that threatens to outpace the ability of new species to migrate to hospitable ecosystems. Global warming, he suggests, could create a terrible synergy with acid rain, invasive species and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat leading to the extinction of many plant and animal populations and, indeed, of entire species. If existing species are wiped out and new species are slow to migrate north to replace them, America’s once-magnificent Southeast forests could be replaced with a barren savannah.

(2) Rising concentrations of CO2 will acidify the oceans and stress marine life. This problem, incidentally, occurs independently from temperature change. No one disputes the fact that CO2 levels are rising and that acidification stresses marine life; the only debate (of which I’m familiar) is the extent to which marine species can adapt to acidification. In either case, the impact of acidification in the Cheasapeake Bay is magnified by warming waters, overfishing and excess nutrients dumped into the watershed.

(3) Rising sea levels will subject large swaths of the Tidewater to increasing flooding and, ultimately, permanent inundation. Some of the flooding can be attributed to subsidence of the land in response to the retreat of Ice Age glaciers thousands of years ago and will continue, regardless of what happens to global temperatures. If warming occurs, melting icecaps and heating the water — warm water occupies slightly more space than cold — climate change will accelerate the encroachment of the sea upon the land that’s already taking place.

Nash deals with other issues as well, from the impact of temperatures on rainfall and agricultural productivity to the spread of mosquito-borne disease.

My purpose here is not to re-argue the case for and against catastrophic global warming, a topic upon which most people already have firm views and are not likely to change their minds. (For the record, I’m inclined to believe that the planet will continue to warm at a slow-but-steady pace, as it has since the end of the Little Ice Age, but far less rapidly than the catastrophic scenarios called for in the more apocalyptic literature.)

Nash’s valuable contribution that even skeptics should appreciate is to provide a close-up look at environmental risks that Virginia faces. Based on the 18-year pause in rising temperatures, forecast by none of the warmists’ climate models, I don’t see the worst-case scenario transpiring. But Nash makes an excellent point. Let’s assume temperatures and sea levels won’t reach the predicted horror-scenario levels by 2100. It may take a few decades longer than currently anticipated to get there. (Maybe a century longer, in my estimation.) But we’ll get there eventually. We should take advantage of that time to build more resilient communities.

In my view, the tragedy of politics in Virginia is that nearly all public policy is devoted to the proposition that by reducing local greenhouse gas emissions, Virginians can have a meaningful impact on global temperatures. Virginia could revert to stone-age levels of zero greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, and the savings would offset the increase in CO2 from coal-fired power plants built in India and China in a year! (OK, maybe not a year, but over a very short period of time.) The point is, the commonwealth and its citizens are investing billions of dollars in LEED-certified buildings, renewable energy, mass transit, electric cars and a host of other saintly endeavors whose collective impact upon global temperatures may be measurable in one-hundredths of a degree over the next century.

Yet, as Nash points out, Virginia is doing almost nothing to mitigate the impact of climate change if and when it does come. He shows how real estate development proceeds apace in areas subject to increasingly frequent and severe flooding. He raises a really important question. If large tracts of Virginia become flood-prone and impossible to serve with road access, electric power and water/sewer utilities, what obligation does the general public have to pour good money after bad to keep those areas habitable? Should state and/or local government be planning for the inevitable by hardening the infrastructure for the most valuable areas like the City of Norfolk and designating flood-vulnerable areas where they will refuse to invest public resources? These discussions are taking places only at the margins of public discourse, and state government is doing little. Writes Nash:

No research about climate change is under way at the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and there is non at our two land-grant universities, Virginia Tech and Virginia State, or at the state’s Agricultural Extension Service.

There’s no guidance from the Department of Transportation about sea level rise for state highway engineers, and none for local civil engineers planning sewer lines, roads, or other infrastructure for Virginia cities and counties.

There are many small points with which I could quibble. Just a couple of examples. Nash gives short shrift to an enormous body of research suggesting that rising CO2 levels accelerate plant growth and increase plant resistance to the very droughts that he predicts will occur. Similarly, scientists raise the prospect that warmer temperatures might introduce dengue fever and chikungunya to Virginia, but it never seems to occur to anyone that warmer temperatures might ameliorate diseases and medical conditions associated with the cold! Climate scientists do share a bias — I agree with former Virginia climatologist Patrick Michael, whom Nash also interviewed, about this — for identifying and researching the downside of global warming and none of the upside.

Despite minor blemishes, Nash has penned a thoughtful treatise, and he has written it in a non-polemical manner. He does not accuse skeptics of arguing in bad faith (although he doesn’t think they deserve “equal time” with consensus scientists). Indeed, he anticipates their objections and deals with them, at least to his satisfaction. From my viewpoint as a skeptic, the most valuable service he provides is to illuminate the tremendous stakes involved. Even if global warming doesn’t accelerate, as he fears, and only continues along its slow-but-steady path, Virginia faces tremendous environmental challenges. Dismissing global warming fears as a “hoax” won’t change that. We need to think about those challenges now, not when they spring upon us and it’s too late to act.

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25 responses to “What Climate Change Could Mean to Virginia

  1. If for no other reason, planners need to continue (at a faster pace) looking at sea level rise. That is a real danger. How it happens isn’t as important as a plan to address it.

  2. I know that global warming is coming. And I think that we humans are contributing to that event.
    However, it seems that Mother Earth is on a path to continued warming and has been for about 12000 years or since the last ice age.
    12,000 years ago there were ice sheet in northern Alabama and Mississippi and the sea levels were about 398 feet below where they are now. (Was there a Chesapeake Bay back then?) There has been a steady if bumpy (remember the little ice age) warming for those 12,000 years. It does appear that the rate of increase is a little higher than it was in 1250 AD but who knows for sure?
    Can America control human contribution to global warming? Yes but are we representative of Gloval opinion? We have the potential for 10-15 coal fired electrical plants here while India and China are either constructing or planning more than 1,000 such plants. And they are not going to let a comparatively rich western population dictate to them as they try to catch up economically etc.
    But we do need plan for the rising sea levels because they are coming whatever we do. And that is why the Governor’s commission to plan for rising sea levels was a very smart thing to do.

  3. If you flip a coin one million times the odds of getting 20 heads in a row at some point during that million coin toss sequence are just over 39%. Had you started observing the coin toss marathon in progress begining with the first heads in the 20 heads sequence you would have declared an unfair coin by the 18th heads in a row. However, the coin would be perfectly fair.

    I don’t know the statistics or probabilities of weather patterns. However, I am confident that weather patterns are a probabilistic distribution (or, more likely, many probabilistic distributions) of some sort. Moreover, unlike the binary outcome of a coin toss, global temperatures are much more analog in nature. So, I have to guess (and it is a guess) that an 18 year hiatus on warming doesn’t disprove a long term trend. However, having said that, each consecutive year without warming really does start to skew the odds against there being a trend after all.

    From what I’ve read the warming in 2014 is likely to end the 18 year hiatus and restart the climate debate.

  4. This so-called pause in global warming only counts if you exclude 71 percent of the globe – the oceans – from the definition.


    And, again, the Earth is on a bit of a hot streak right now, and since 2000.


    But, hey, maybe you are Galileo…

  5. “But you have to wondering how global warming, – if it occurs ….”

    Jeez, you have to love Bacon. He really wants to write something positive but you know he doesn’t believe a word of it, not one word.

    It’s like his bizarre attack on the U.S. Attorney’s office that Bob McDonnell should not have been convicted because Jonnie R., Williams tripped up on a few lines of testimony (he had been on the stand for four, grueling days) despite the preponderance of other damning evidence and the jury’s crystal clear verdict.

    You can imagine having coffee with Bacon and listening to him say:

    “Now, I’m not advocating anything that McDonnell did. He no longer has my confidence. Nosiree! If I see him and am going to go up to him, wag my finger at him and say: “Bad Bob, Bad Bob.” But that doesn’t mean he should have convicted by Obama’s henchmen.”

  6. It’s not like we don’t already have a recent interlude between mankind and our global environment.

    It occurred only a few years ago when scientists warned us of “holes” over the poles and that if we did not act the holes would bigger and that significant global-scale damage could result.

    So action was taken. We don’t know for sure if India or China did what the rest of the world did – and we had no real idea of how fast the holes were expanding or what effect getting rid of CFCs would actually have and how soon or or long.

    To the “skeptics”, it’s as if this part of history never transpired.

    that it never happened and we have no prior history about global scale impacts to go by.

    But how or why in the world would ANYONE expect the level of precision that skeptics say we should get from scientists about what will happen and when?

    We never had that kind of conversation with the Ozone Holes because we simply did not have that level of precision in predictions nor did we expect it. It was sufficient that something was going on – and it did not bode well for the future so we took action.

    we don’t expect such precision from predicting hurricanes either but we will evacuate huge regions – at tremendous economic costs – because we are waned that catastrophic damage IS… POSSIBLE. That’s all we need to board up the businesses and homes and get out of dodge.

    I fully expect in the next few years that the “skeptic” disease will spread and we’ll next pounce on the hurricane scientists accusing them of colluding on a grade scale to cause entire communities to be evacuated as part of a liberal conspiracy…

    Science is NEVER absolute. It is ALWAYS prospective. It used to be considered in that “better safe than sorry” light – but no more.

    Why in the world would you bet your life even if it was only a small percent risk?

    Because that’s essentially what we are doing.

    If we act right now – it’s possible it would play out like the ozone holes did.

    If we don’t, who knows what may or may not happen?

  7. While I appreciate Jim’s presenting Nash’s report with some objectivity, his skepticism doesn’t wash. It reminds me of Tycho Brahe’s attempt to refute Copernicus with a clever revision of Ptolomy’s geocentric solar system and, indeed, universe. Brahe simply delayed the scientific unanimity in understanding and embracing the truth of the heliocentric solar system.

    Are not our climate change skeptics simply repeating a disdain for real science based more on philosophy and prejudice (in Burke’s meaning) than on sometimes uncomfortable facts in ways that have so often proven harmful to human progress by virtue of delayed response?

  8. It’s not the Climate that is the real issue. Its’ people’s attitudes and skepticism about science … that has changed.

    The institution of science itself is now at issue as scientists – around the globe – have been accused of basically a conspiracy to lie about science.

    If the ozone hole issue happened today – we would not act. We would claim the scientists have not proved there is any connection between CFCs and potential catastrophic damage but instead the focus would be on the scientists and their data – where they would be accused of cooking the books … to get more grant money .. or whatever the current skeptic suspicion is.

    If scientists claimed an asteroid was heading for us and might hit us – but ultimately it missed – they would be accused of being incompetent or fear mongering… or colluding to scare us into giving them more money for research.

    Jim defines “reasoned” in a curious way – sometimes. I’m no longer certain what “reasoned” even means in a Climate Change discussion!

    and how this whole issue got bolloxed into a “liberal” versus “conservative” issue is bizarre.

    If you think about it the word “conservative” is one where you pull back a bit if you don’t know for sure… you allow some room for error … just in case.

    but in the issue of Global Warming – the skeptics are like contemporary “conservatives” where there is a huge range in the breadth of the skepticism.

    We have elected members of Congress – right now who call Climate Change a HOAX .. and some of these same guys claim the earth is 6000 years old.

    then you have those who are not quite so sure but they are opposed to a penny being spent to pull back a bit – just in case.. like we did with CFCs… when we did not have absolute certainty that pulling back was worth it or even if it would do anything.

    It really bad when the fate of the earth lies in the hands of people who think the threats are a hoax – because – it IS indeed the skeptics who are basically blocking any action forward – and their more moderate like-minded are willing to join hands with the hard core – and – refuse to do anything.

    We talk about leadership and how we need it and lack it. But leadership is also within our own selves.

    What we do – or not do – empowers or undermines those who are functioning leaders.

    The “safe but sorry” philosophy has been shot so many times in the butt – that it now resembles a swiss cheese! The skeptics are bound and determined to prevail in the argument and decision on action – itself – no matter what the downstream reality might play out to be.

    the rest of us are just along for the ride.

    oh one more thing.. we cry and whine about the world we are leaving our children debt-wise but this don’t count at all apparently.

  9. You guys are amazing. I write a book review in which I say, essentially as an aside, that temperatures are rising but evince skepticism in the worst-case catastrophic scenarios, and you get all worked up about climate deniers.

    You totally ignore major points I raise, which create some common ground for alarmists and skeptics — the risks associated with ocean acidification (a phenomenon that is independent of warming), rising sea levels along the Virginia coast (which is occurring whether sea levels are rising globally or not), and the threat to plant and animal species (which is aggravated by acid rain, invasive species and fragmentation of wildlife habitat) — and you totally ignore that. You have nothing useful to say. You add nothing to the conversation.

    Furthermore, you refuse to grapple with the undeniable reality that anything we do in Virginia to reduce CO2 emissions will have an infinitesimally small impact on global temperatures, especially given the massive commitment of China and India to coal-burning electric power. I pose an important question — are we better off investing billions of dollars locally in reducing CO2 emissions in the Quixotic quest to lower CO2 levels globally — which even some in the alarmist camp say it is too late to have any impact, we’re all doomed anyway — or to spend the money figuring out how to mitigate the impact of warming when it comes.

    It’s one thing to say that global warming is an impending disaster, and it’s quite another to say that the best way to fight it is to reduce C02 emissions. The first proposition is a scientific issue. The second is an economic or philosophical issue. Yet you strut around proclaiming that your entire position is based on science, and that anyone who disagrees with you on your philosophical proposition is an ignorant, anti-scientific fool.

    Do you realize how arrogant and doctrinaire you sound? Do you realize how you turn people off?

    • ” Furthermore, you refuse to grapple with the undeniable reality that anything we do in Virginia to reduce CO2 emissions will have an infinitesimally small impact on global temperatures, especially given the massive commitment of China and India to coal-burning electric power.”

      but if we took you advice for the Ozone Holes, we would have concluded there was no way to reduce the damage because we could not be assured that these other nations would also cut back.

      So you basically have a fatalistic attitude as part and parcel of your “denial”.

      People who were concerned about the Ozone Holes were not called “alarmists” – either so why now?

      And scientists who said we had a problem with CFCs were not accused of engaging in a global conspiracy to falsify data – even though no one – not even the scientists had answers that were high precision and highly accurate.

      In the end – they were worried about the impacts and there was no guarantee that reducing CFCs would actually “work” to any certainty but we did decide to do it and hope it did help.

      we don’t have that attitude today with the “deniers” who basically doubt what the science is saying, accuse scientists of creating a hoax and calling those who do have concerns – “alarmists”.

      what has changed between the Ozone Holes and Global Warming?

      what has generated the skeptics that did not generate them with the Ozone Holes?

      I contend that today – if we had the Ozone Hole problem – this new generation of “skeptics” would also “deny” the Ozone holes.

  10. Where we should all agree is that we should pursue cuts in CO2 and other green house gasses in ways than improve energy efficiency and lower energy and health costs. Because of course Jim’s point about Virginia’s efforts being a pin prick in the global response to climate warming is valid, putting aside any moral notions or the concept of doing what we’d wish others would do.

    • If we had made the same “Virginia is a pin prick” argument for CFCs for Ozone would it had been any different?

      The skeptics argument often seems to go from ” it’s too expensive to do anything” to ” it won’t do any good anyhow if the others don’t reduce Co2 also”.

      I just think back to the CFC situation with the Ozone Holes and wonder if we had made the same arguments then – if we would have done anything at all.

      We had to show leadership and resolve on the CFCs to convince other countries to join the issue.. Had we not show than leadership, the rest of the world may well have not done anything.

      somewhere between the CFC/Ozone holes and Global Warming something changed … it seems…

      does anyone else see any comparisons/parallels between the Ozone Hole issue and Global Warming?

  11. Ocean acidification has nothing to do with climate change? Where the f#$@ does that nonsense come from?

    • Ocean acidification comes from the increase of CO2 in the ocean.

      Climate change comes from the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.

      The two have similar origins. But climate change does not cause acidification.


      • so… you can buy that burning fossil fuels is messing up the oceans…. but not the climate?

        what the &***&(&

        • Wow, sometimes I wonder if liberals understand the science behind their own orthodoxy.

          Ocean acidification and climate change both stem from an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere but the physical pathways are totally different. The higher temperatures predicted from CO2 increases are not what cause acidification.

          Ocean acidification is a far simpler process than climate change. CO2 enters the atmosphere from human-caused activity. CO2 transfers from the atmosphere to the ocean. Increased CO2 in the ocean increases acidification. That’s it. Simple and straightforward.

          Climate change is far more complex. CO2 enters the atmosphere. CO2 creates a minor greenhouse gas effect. The Global Warming models are predicated on what supposedly happens next. The slightly higher temperatures created by CO2 are amplified by feedback effects, most notably the uptake of additional water in the atmosphere. Water vapor is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. The uncertainty is whether or not there are other feedback effects that are less understood, the primary one being cloud cover. More water in the atmosphere means more clouds. Clouds simultaneously trap heat radiated from the earth and reflect it from the sun. Different types of clouds have different effects. How this all nets out is much, much, much more complex and conjectural than what happens with ocean acidification.

          Jim Bacon…. the voice of scientific reason in the face of massive ignorance.

          • you act like the CO2 allocates itself in precise ways between ocean and air.

            how much does the Ocean get and how much does the atmosphere get and in what proportions and why?

            do you think the CO2 just bypasses the atmosphere and goes direct to the ocean?

            then what would you say about this:


            bottom line: – you can’t be a real scientist by just reading a few articles…

            why would you rely on scientists to tell you about a hurricane track or the effect of mercury but doubt them on other issues?

          • Larry asked, “Do you think the CO2 just bypasses the atmosphere and goes direct to the ocean?”

            Gee, Larry, good question. Let’s see what I just wrote.

            “CO2 enters the atmosphere from human-caused activity. CO2 transfers from the atmosphere to the ocean. ”

            When in doubt, try reading what I wrote.

      • This response represents an incredible exercise in … something. The overall increase in CO2 ends up in the atmosphere and it is also absorbed by the oceans. Climate change is very, very strongly affected by the oceans. Consider the Gulf Stream, and the effect that will be experienced in the near future (much nearer than originally estimated, BTW) as it weakens.

        To claim that climate change is independent of the oceans is an incredible exercise in mental gymnastics. I understand Republicans/Conservatives claim not to be scientists. But abandoning logic does not require a grounding in science.

        PS: Something I’ve wondered for a while: Are you ALL electrical engineers, or don’t you use any electricity whatsoever? (that is sarcasm, but I will not apologize for it – I think it deserves a response).

        • re: ” Something I’ve wondered for a while: Are you ALL electrical engineers, or don’t you use any electricity whatsoever? (that is sarcasm, but I will not apologize for it – I think it deserves a response).”

          I would, if I understood the question!

        • re: ” To claim that climate change is independent of the oceans is an incredible exercise in mental gymnastics. I understand Republicans/Conservatives claim not to be scientists. But abandoning logic does not require a grounding in science.”

          this is what happens when one does not have a real scientific background then they read “something” written by “someone” who, these days, more often than not, is someone who not only is not a real scientist but also does not believe real scientists so they make it up as they go along.and others read it and it sounds “plausible” so they buy it.

          to say that climate science is “more complicated” than “oceans” is breath-taking.. and not necessarily in a good way.

          How in the world would someone be able to conclude that to start with?

          we really are, as a society, reverting to Luddites … we distrust science and now put stock in non-scientists and fringe scientists and if they tell us the ocean is “simple” and the atmosphere is not – so be it.

        • NoVa Shenandoah said, “To claim that climate change is independent of the oceans is an incredible exercise in mental gymnastics.”

          Indeed, to make such a claim would be an incredible exercise in mental gymnastics. However, I did not make such a claim, nor anything remotely like it. Therefore, to claim that I made such a claim is the real feat in mental gymnastics.

          • Jim – do you or Nash have any idea of the degree of acidification and what effect it may have on some species including their potential extinction which would then impact other critters in the food web?

            you sound like it’s not a major impact and that it is much more easily quantified.

            do you have any idea of the RATE and the EXTENT of acidification ?

            I’m just AGOG that you rely on a journalist to “explain” the science.

            even Wikipedia does not do that. it, instead, seeks to relate more or less directly what various scientists say and it does so by having dozens, hundreds of references from which they related the info in the main body.

            How qualified is anyone who is not in a field – to “explain” what even people in the field may not agree to or understand?

            isn’t that our problem these days with Global Warming now that many have decided that non-scientists know more about climate than actual scientists?

          • Larry says he’s “AGOG ” that I rely “on a journalist to ‘explain’ the science.”

            Really? Where do you get your knowledge of climate science? You spend a lot of time reading the original academic research, do you?

          • I read a lot – but I do not put much stock in folks who are not scientists “explaining” science that they do not have a background in.

            why would you rely on someone who has no more background than you to “explain” science that is complex and the folks involved in it are PHDs with decades worth of experience and study?

            Look at how Wiki-pedia does this – they do not try to “explain”.. they relate the statements and attribute them.. they do not assume a role that they are qualified to “explain”.

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