Hearing on Sea Level Rise

Jun 30, 2014

Norfolk, VA
Credit Wetlands Watch

Two Virginia Democrats are teaming up with two Virginia Republicans in a rare bipartisan hearing into how to combat sea level rise along the eastern shore.

Most Republicans in Congress are dubious of climate scientists who claim humans are heating the planet. Take Virginia Congressman Scott Rigell. He represents a purple district encompassing all of Virginia Beach. He’s won twice running as an open-minded pragmatist. Unlike moderates elsewhere, Rigell remains dubious of human’s impact on the climate.

“Evidence is clear that our earth has heated and cooled at times – and many times – fully independent of what man has done or not done.”

While Rigell isn’t convinced humans are to blame, he doesn’t deny the salty waters of the Atlantic are encroaching on Virginia Beach and Norfolk. 

“Of course the predictions are clear that overtime we could certainly expect them to rise.” 

That’s why Rigell is joining Virginia Democrats to discuss solutions; not causes. Why water and man are colliding is still disputed in the commonwealth, but Democratic Senator Tim Kaine says that’s not why he convened the field hearing of disparate political minds.

“Sea level is coming up, but the land is also sinking at like point one two inches a year and the combined effect of that is pretty devastating.”

Kaine says this is a time for action - or years could be lost in what's expected to be a decade’s long battle.

“I hope it’s not just preparing to act in the aftermath of an emergency but how to mitigate it because if you look at the sea level rise projections they jeopardize naval operations. By 2040, the main road in and out of the largest naval base in the world will be impassable two or three hours a day just by, because of the tidal changes.”

Republican Rob Wittmann and Democrat Bobby Scott are also participating. One of the biggest issues these lawmakers want to understand better, according to Rigell, is the impact of sea level rise on the Navy.

“So finding the resources needed to ensure that our military assets are ready to go and our ability to defend our nation is not impaired by sea level rise that’s the principle concern.”

As lawmakers on the eastern shore fight the effects of climate change, in southwest Virginia they're fighting to keep coal alive - a fuel scientists argue is accelerating climate change. And this summer that debate is heating up on Capitol Hill. Virginia Republican Representative Morgan Griffith says a recent Supreme Court case bolsters his argument that the EPA is overreaching.

“They recognize that the EPA, in fact, overreached. Not as much as I would have liked to have seen them recognize that, but they did recognize the EPA has done an overreach and they reigned them in a little bit.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of coal rich Kentucky is threatening to hold up the nation's spending bills this summer if he isn't allowed an up or down vote on his bill to block the EPA from implementing new carbon control. Griffith says Democrats should bring climate change legislation to the floor instead of hiding behind faceless bureaucrats at the EPA.

“Well you know we used to have a saying in the Virginia House of Delegates ‘get your own bill.’ Just because you don’t like the code of the United States doesn’t mean that the EPA gets to change it. Nobody elected them. So if they feel that this is absolutely necessary, put an amendment in let’s see if it passes.”

It’s not just Republicans complaining. There’s growing discontent among younger Democratic senators to vote on a wide array of proposals, including energy legislation. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine doesn't defend Majority Leader Harry Reid for blocking GOP amendments on issues like the EPA but says he's merely responding to a Republican Party that wants to halt the administration at every turn. 

“We need more amendments and look, I think Leader Reid is frustrated by a process that has made it difficult to do.”

Virginia has become ground zero for the debate on climate change: it's coasts are changing and so is its coal industry. And it doesn't look like there's much going on in this Congress that will impact either of those changing realities.