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.There are currently no comments highlighted.