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Opinion

Future blessings

SoVaNow.com / November 28, 2018
As we move forward into the holiday season, consider things to be thankful for: good health or good fortune, or maybe simply the kids doing well in school or a favorite team on top of their game. Most any blessing will do. In our household, a cause for celebration has arisen in recent weeks — the reopening of a stretch of U.S. 58 that was shut down when Tropical Storm Michael sent floodwaters raging through the area in October.

My wife teaches at Dan River High School in eastern Pittsylvania County. Her daily commute from our home in South Boston was already enough of a pain before Michael’s torrential rains raised a sleepy little creek to levels heretofore unimaginable and washed out a four-lane bridge just west of the Halifax-Pittsylvania line. For about a month, traffic on Southside Virginia’s busiest artery had to be re-routed into Person and Caswell (N.C.) counties for people driving back and forth between South Boston and Danville. VDOT recently completed repairs to one of the bridge supports over Sandy Creek, allowing two lanes of the highway to reopen. The other bridge sustained more serious damage and will require weeks if not months to fully repair.

Like I said, there are many causes in life for good cheer. Getting rid of an extra 45 minutes to an hour on top of one’s daily commute is just one example. But perhaps more than celebrating minor victories, what we should be doing right now is applying a spirit of positivity to greater challenges ahead. And there is no more important task than addressing the underlying cause of our recent wild weather: climate change, the test of our times.

On Friday, the federal government released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, produced by a team of more than 300 experts across 13 agencies who examined how local communities are faring in our warming world. The big takeaway from the report is that climate change is occurring at a pace that confirms scientists’ worst fears, and severe impacts are cropping up everywhere — in the form of runaway wildfires, destructive coastal tides and other manifestations of an increasingly unpredictable natural environment. In one change with particularly ominous implications for our region, Tornado Alley is shifting east and south, and powerful twisters, commonly seen in the Midwest but almost unheard of in Southside, are cropping up with alarming frequency. Not all freak weather events can be tied directly to climate change, but it’s long past time to drop the pretense that what’s happening around us is mere accident or happenstance. A hotter planet has consequences, and we’re feeling them.

The national climate assessment doesn’t drill all the way down to the question of how Southside is affected, but if you think rising oceans and persistent drought are problems only for places like Florida and California, think again. Here’s a passage from the report’s summary that ought to get everyone’s attention: “Rising air and water temperatures and more intense extreme events are expected to increase exposure to waterborne and foodborne diseases, affecting food and water safety … The frequency and severity of allergic illnesses, including asthma and hay fever, are expected to increase as a result of a changing climate. Climate change is also projected to alter the geographic range and distribution of disease-carrying insects and pests, exposing more people to ticks that carry Lyme disease and mosquitoes that transmit viruses such as Zika, West Nile, and dengue, with varying impacts across regions.” There’s tons more just like this for your reading consideration.

The report has a lot to say about the implications of a changing climate for America’s aging infrastructure, something that’s definitely in plain view in these parts of late. Reporting to the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors in early October — before Hurricane Michael had passed through — VDOT officials said the damage to local roads from Hurricane Florence a few weeks earlier was the worst they had seen in at least 40 years. In the Riverdale commercial area of South Boston, merchants have had to abandon their businesses three times in the past three months as the Dan River breached its banks and inundated the district. Five people died from flooding in the City of Danville and Pittsylvania and Charlotte counties when Michael passed through last month. Danville’s Riverside Drive, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, is so prone to flash floods that heavy rainfall poses a constant threat to the health and safety of local motorists. Across the board, in almost every facet of life — agriculture, commerce, recreation, travel, public health — the story is the same: we have a big problem, and we need to do something about it.

But what? Let’s stick to basics here: Collective action is our only hope for effectively mitigating the impacts of climate change, so the first step is to disavow (and vote out) leaders who continue to insist the crisis isn’t real and/or nothing can be done about it. For some strange reason, one of our two major political parties has adopted the violently anti-science position that climate change is a hoax or some such other nonsense. Climate change denialism is an act of political opportunism that will haunt the Republican Party for generations. Indeed, one possible approach for addressing the problem is a market-based, cap-and-trade system to incentivize industries to emit less carbon pollution — a solution that happens to have been pioneered by Republican administrations in years past. Ronald Reagan might as well be Rachel Carson compared to today’s average Republican politician. Ultimately, though, it’s the voting public that will decide how, and if, we should move forward. So what should we demand from our leaders, and from ourselves?

Here’s where a little positivity of mind can go a long way: innovation and imagination are powerful allies in this fight. We’re already seeing wind and solar power displacing incumbent sources of energy like coal and natural gas, and the economics of the energy business are strongly in favor of further gains by the renewable sector. True, the transition will come at a cost; the handwriting is already on the wall for coal-generated power — which in our area means the closure, sooner if not later, of the Clover Power Station in Halifax County, and the Hyco and Roxboro Power Stations in Person County (the latter is one of the biggest coal-fired generation facilities — and polluters — in the United States.) Clarksville lost its Dominion coal power plant last year, so it’s not like this trend is new. These plants don’t account for that many jobs, but they do contribute handsomely to the local tax base. The pain will be real.

But so is the upside. Southside has two big things going for it — farmland and open spaces — that loom large in any sensible strategy to mitigate climate change. A carbon tax, for instance, could be structured to not only discourage big polluters but also to reward those who create and preserve carbon sink green spaces. (Plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, after all.) The biggest thing we need to be doing, of course, is re-engineer our infrastructure to enable a clean energy economy. This involves trillions of dollars in investment, much of it going to rural areas that are starving for attention to begin with. Greening the economy is a challenge on par with electrifying the countryside in the 1930s; problem is, we run a huge risk if we space out these revolutions across the span of a full century.

2035: according to the climate assessment, that’s how long world governments have to act decisively or run the risk of 2ºC (3.6ºF) higher temperatures by 2100, with virtually no chance of reversing the effects of an overheated planet and the resulting devastation to farms, cities, and entire continents. It’s a scary prospect, one that might lead people in the here and now to think that nothing can be done, so why bother. How about a different approach — one that stands a chance of extending our present-day blessings into the future for our children and grandchildren? It would be nice if at some distance point in the future, generations to come can look back and count us among the things to be thankful for.





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