Preparing for Climate Change: A Tale of Two States, Maryland and Virginia

Although separated by only the Potomac River, the District of Columbia, and parts of West Virginia, the states of Maryland and Virginia could not be farther apart when it comes to preparing for climate change.  According to a new NRDC report released today, Ready or Not, Maryland is among the states doing the most to prepare for climate change while Virginia is among 29 states that are far behind in their planning efforts.       

In Maryland, warmer temperatures are projected to decrease winter snow volume as much as 50 percent by 2050 and increase the occurrence of month-long droughts from once every 40 years to as often as once every 8 years by 2100.  Over the past 100 years, 13 islands in the Chesapeake Bay have disappeared under higher seas and erosion.  In coastal areas, a relative sea level rise of just 1.5 feet would completely flood 264 miles of roads, 226 miles of railways, and 31 percent of port facilities. 

In Virginia, the Hampton Roads region is experiencing rates of relative sea level rise among the highest along the eastern coast of the U.S. due to land subsidence and global sea level rise driven by melting ice sheets and expanding oceans.  In addition, the Virginia Beach-Norfolk metropolitan area ranks 10th worldwide in terms of assets at risk to sea level rise.  A relative sea level rise of just 2 feet would make over 740 square miles statewide, including 170 miles of major roads and 35 percent of total port land area, vulnerable to permanent flooding.

Despite the similar climate impacts both states are likely to face, they are taking two entirely different approaches to tackling these challenges.  Maryland has adopted a greenhouse gas pollution reduction goal of 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020, is participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) to limit carbon pollution from power plants, and has released a draft action plan to meet the state’s pollution reduction goal.  The state also completed a two-phased climate change preparedness strategy in 2011, and state agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation are considering climate change in planning and operations.  Furthermore, Maryland has passed legislation in recent years that will help prepare communities for climate change, such as requiring the use of non-structural shoreline stabilization techniques and requiring new development and redevelopment to use green infrastructure.

Meanwhile, its neighbor Virginia is falling behind.  Former Governor Tim Kaine established a statewide greenhouse gas pollution reduction goal and a commission to develop strategies to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and prepare for climate change impacts.  The state also has provided some funding to local planning districts to address sea level rise.  However, current Governor Bob McDonnell hasn’t seen a need to continue the work of the commission, and the state is now suing the EPA to block federal regulation of carbon emissions.  Considering the failure of state government to adequately prepare, the forward-thinking actions of local and regional entities like the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission and the City of Norfolk (as detailed in last year’s Thirsty for Answers report) will become increasingly vital.

Even the Pentagon and U.S. military understand that fortune favors the bold and the prepared, as they formally addressed climate in a comprehensive planning document for the first time in 2010.  Hampton Roads is home to the largest naval base in the world and many other military installations.  The Defense Department identified climate change and energy security as "prominent military vulnerabilities," noting that climate change in particular is an "accelerant of instability and conflict" and is taking action to prepare.

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  • Aerial view of Norfolk Naval Station – photo credit U.S. Navy

If you live in Maryland, you should be proud that your state is one of a handful of nationwide leaders on climate change preparedness, but there remains a lot of work to be done.  Developing a comprehensive plan is but a first step.  The most important part—translating words into action—is yet to come and needs to occur.  If you’re a fellow Virginian, you should tell your local and state officials to take climate change risks seriously and plan accordingly—the sooner, the better. 

The consequences of failing to act hit home for every one of us—we hurt our families and communities, and the economy.