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Virginia Republicans Oppose Sea-Level Rise Language

By Eric Lach (Talking Points Memo) - June 14, 2012

Virginia’s Hampton Roads region is at high risk for flooding, and lawmakers and officials in the state are trying to plan for the sea-level rise expected as a result of climate change. But they’re running into a problem: some Republicans refuse to accept the terms “sea level rise” or “climate change.”

The BBC reports how state Senator Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and state Delegate Chris Stolle, a Republican, worked together this year to get a bill passed that provides $50,000 for a “comprehensive study of the economic impact of coastal flooding on Virginia and to investigate ways to adapt.” The bill’s original draft contained the term “relative sea level rise,” but the version that eventually passed used the term “recurrent flooding” instead, at Stolle’s suggestion.

“Other folks can go argue about sea-level rise and global warming,” Stolle told the BBC. “What matters is people’s homes are getting destroyed, and that’s what we want to focus on. To think that we are going to stop climate change is absolute hubris. The climate is going to change whether we’re here or not.”

Stolle went further in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot. He told the newspaper that “sea level rise” is a “left-wing term.”

“What people care about is the floodwater coming through their door,” he said. “Let’s focus on that. Let’s study that. So that’s what I wanted us to call it.”

Laura McKay, state director of coastal zone management programs at Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, told the Virginian-Pilot that studies of sea level rise in Hampton Roads, the Middle Peninsula and Northern Virginia have all had language altered to soften the climate-change implications.

At first, McKay said, the studies were about “climate change.” Then they were changed to “sea level rise.” Now they are about “coastal resilience.” And while the studies themselves are slightly different, McKay said, political sensitivities played a role.

“It’s kind of silly,” she said. “But the reality is, some of the phrases just really send people screaming. We want to use language that doesn’t alienate people.”

Scientists and other officials are trying to play it cool when it comes to the wordplay.

“These studies need to be done if we’re going to logically tackle these problems that scientific data unequivocally proves are happening,” Larry Atkinson, an oceanographer at Old Dominion University, said. “So, whatever we have to call it, I’ve got no problem with that… What’s the alternative? Do nothing?”

But the cost of rising seas is already being felt in the state. According to the BBC, Norfolk spends around $6 million a year to elevate roads, improve drainage, and help homeowners elevate residences.

Virginia isn’t alone in having sea-level rise preparation turned into a political issue. Last week, a Senate committee in North Carolina approved a bill that restricts state agencies’ ability to take global warming into account when making sea-level rise projections.