State lawmakers ran into a problem this year when recommending a study on rising sea levels and their potential impacts on coastal Virginia.
It was not a scientific problem or a financial one. It was linguistic.
They discovered that they could not use the phrases "sea level rise" or "climate change" in requesting the study, in part because of objections from Republican colleagues and also for fear of stirring up conservative activists, some of whom believe such terms are liberal code words.
On its website, for example, the Virginia tea party described the proposed "sea level rise" study this way: "More wasted tax dollars for more ridiculous studies designed to separate us from our money and control all land and water use."
The group urged its members to contact elected officials right away to defeat the measure: "They will pass this without blinking if we don't yell loudly."
So lawmakers did away with all mention of sea level rise, substituting a more politically neutral phrase: "recurrent flooding."
It was recently brought home to me when the newly repaired docks at Flag Harbor were raised 11 inches. I was thinking that was a lot, until I did the math. The docks were installed in the 1980s. Since then, at the current rate of Chesapeake Bay sea level rise of about 4 mm a year, the Bay has risen about 160 mm, or about 6 inches. If the docks last another 40 years, sea level rise will bring them back to roughly the height above high water as they were in 1980.
But, that's how man adapts. We did it on our own, with our own money, when we need to. We don't need the government to claim a special right to manage the coastal and enforce their collective vision of how we should handle it.
The amended study, while fixed on the same research, sailed through the General Assembly and was signed by Gov. Bob McDonnell, who also has raised questions about what is causing slightly higher temperatures on the planet.
The episode illustrates the continuing, even increasing, volatility of climate change as a policy issue in Virginia, at the same time that other states and whole nations are moving forward with plans to combat the phenomenon.
It also shows how climate skeptics, through their political connections and organization, are forcing state and local government to stay clear of certain buzzwords in quietly pursuing a strategy, else they risk unleashing a brawl.
Government officials and scientists just shrug when asked about the language games, especially when the subject is sea level rise. To them, the debate should not be about what is causing waters to slowly rise, but what should be done about it.
"These studies need to be done if we're going to logically tackle these problems that scientific data unequivocally proves are happening," said Larry Atkinson, an oceanographer at Old Dominion University who is overseeing a climate change initiative that focuses on rising sea levels.
"So, whatever we have to call it, I've got no problem with that," he added. "What's the alternative? Do nothing?"
The semantics dance harkens to the days when "global warming" was commonly uttered. But after conservatives criticized and ridiculed Al Gore and others, "climate change" became the kinder, gentler way to communicate the same thing.
Now it appears that "climate change" and "sea level rise" are being phased out, in Virginia at least, amid political pressure from the far right. Emerging labels include "increased flooding risk," "coastal resiliency" and, of course, "recurrent flooding."
|GISS Monthly Mean Surface Temperature Anomaly – 1996 to Present|
State Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, who insisted on changing the "sea level rise" study in the General Assembly to one on "recurrent flooding," said he wants to get political speech out of the mix altogether.Put the house on stilts, or move it back up the hill, but don't ask the government to control it, because it won't.
He said "sea level rise" is a "left-wing term" that conjures up animosities on the right. So why bring it into the equation?
"What people care about is the floodwater coming through their door," Stolle said. "Let's focus on that. Let's study that. So that's what I wanted us to call it."