In his new book Virginia Climate Fever, research scholar Stephen Nash combines two approaches taken by a number of previous authors on issues of climate change, bringing together new regional data — the first popular books worked only with global trends — with first-hand knowledge of the economics, history, politics, and sociology of a particular place.

In Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines and Forests, Nash shows how a changing climate could impact the very different ecological and economic systems of the state, from the fishing and tourism economies of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast, to the farms and forests of the Piedmont, to the mountaintops leveled and then transported, over rail, to power plants and port depots by the coal industry.


Over the course of Virginia Climate Fever’s roughly 200 pages — which include maps and charts to illustrate projected changes in seasonal temperatures, precipitation, and sea levels — Nash, visiting research scholar at the University of Richmond, introduces scientists and citizen volunteers who wrestle with these “local” problems.

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center marine ecologist Denise Breitburg researches how ocean acidification will affect ecosystems within the Bay. Forest ecologist Hank Shugart, Director of the Center for Regional Environmental Studies at the University of Virginia, worries that environmental conditions will change faster than the species that make up Virginia’s ecosystems, like its boreal forests, can move. And George Mason University Professor Jagadish Shukla, who served with corporate executives on one of Virginia’s climate commissions, wonders how far business interests will go to avoid doing anything about climate change.

In the final chapters of his book, Nash reviews the current state of climate modeling; lists ways to assess the credibility of the different voices contending in international, national and regional debates about climate change; and offers a prescription for near-to-medium-term actions Virginians might take to address the interrelated problems. Clearly aware of the literature on the challenges of communicating the science, Nash shows his Virginia readers that climate change already is playing a role in their daily lives and suggests ways they might respond.

Nash responded to Yale Climate Connections e-mail questions about his work:

In your opening chapter, you speak directly to climate “contrarians,” people who doubt the reality and/or severity of climate change, including them among your readers. What led you to believe that addressing contrarians as fellow Virginians would allow your message to get past the ideological filters usually applied to climate change?

Nash: For me it’s an article of faith, and also, I hope, some pragmatism. I have good friends who either do not focus on this issue or have concluded that it’s overblown. Some will never come around, but many others are just inattentive. I don’t want it to be easy for them — I want to try to talk to them and enlist their concern. That’s the faith part. The pragmatic element is that in Virginia, the contrarians control the state legislature, and are a likely majority of voters.

From the first paragraph of your book, you point to the role that coal has played and still plays in Virginia’s economy. In fact, you use the rail lines that transport the coal to help illustrate Virginia’s distinctly different climate zones. Are you trying to tell more activist readers that meaningful ground-level action on climate change won’t be as easy as they think?

Nash: My intention there is to give activists better tools to talk to Virginia citizens — tools that are finally available, thanks to climate science. First, a careful appraisal of the state’s recent climate history — it’s getting hot, fast — and then regional and even local climate projections that show, given various emissions scenarios, how fast temperatures are likely to increase, and where. We’re headed for Northern Florida by the end of the century. In some climate zones, the number of 90+-degree days each year will quadruple.

In several chapters, you suggest that climate change is just the latest “insult” added to a long list of injuries already inflicted on Virginia’s ecosystems. Is the threat posed to Chesapeake Bay oysters by ocean acidification, for example, any worse than the threats already faced by the mollusk: overfishing, silt, pollution, invasive parasites and diseases? By consistently connecting climate change with other factors, are you asking your readers to develop a more comprehensive and integrated view of their impacts on the environment?

Nash: I am, indeed. I’ve been writing science and environmental coverage here since the late 1980s. Climate disruption is the latest and the largest threat, but it can be mitigated to some degree if we begin to take far better care of the state’s natural environment in those other ways.

Virginia Climate Fever cover

In chapters on coastal development and sea-level rise, you introduce the concepts of “anti-planning” and “functioning cynic[ism].” Can you elaborate on what you mean by those terms?

Nash: What I meant to convey in the coined term “anti-planning” is that while it’s tempting just to let things slide (into the water!) by continuing to allow real estate development where sea-level rise is under way, we’re not merely procrastinating. We’re actively destroying the wetlands that Chesapeake Bay fisheries and wildlife populations depend on. A recent federal report predicted that nearly all of them could drown, unless we plan carefully for them to migrate inland as the water rises.

“Functioning cynics” — that was a self-describing quote from one of the most effective long-time campaigners for wetland preservation at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science. He and his colleagues have to keep their energy levels up and continue looking for creative ways to move the state and the coastal localities in the right direction, though for long stretches there’s little encouragement that they’re succeeding. Interestingly, we’re in a period now in which they really are making progress. Glad they didn’t give up! It’s an inspirational example of the patience the rest of us are going to have to muster.

A Third Wave on Climate Change

Stephen Nash‘s Virginia Climate Fever might best be seen as marking the beginning of a third wave of general interest books on climate change.

In the first wave were global and historical travelogues written by journalists and authors Mark Hertsgaard, Elisabeth Kolbert, Eugene Linden, and Mark Lynas, each of whom retraced the steps of scientists who had studied critical sites in the unfolding history of climate change: Alaska, Greenland, Middle East, Africa, China, Pacific Ocean and Islands, Peruvian Andes, and the Caribbean.

A second wave of books took a topical approach to climate change, exploring its possible impacts on the global economy (Nicholas Stern), international relations (Christian Parenti), and public health (Linda Marsa).

Nash combines the two approaches, integrating new regional data on climate change with first-hand knowledge of the economics, history, politics, and sociology of a particular place.

In your “Resettlements” chapter, you suggest that Virginia previously has encountered the problem of climate refugees by way of New Orleans residents relocated after Hurricane Katrina. But that discussion is introduced and then followed by accounts of Virginia’s battles with invasive species. What’s the purpose behind this provocative pairing?

Nash: You’ve sort of seen through what may be a somewhat mis-connected chapter. I wrote about climate change impacts on infectious diseases, mosquitoes and other vectors, an obvious public health issue, with the overarching theme that habitats for many species are shifting around. The rest of the chapter linked all that to the idea that our species, too, will be migrating — out of climate-related danger or privation zones, and toward safety and subsistence. Both sets of migrations will require strong community bonds to cope with a much better public health system in the case of diseases, and resilient social networks to ease the suffering of human migration. We’ll need to take better care of each other.

In one of the final chapters of your book, you recount your interactions with climate science “skeptic” Patrick Michaels, who for 27 years had been state climatologist of Virginia. Why did you decide to make him part of the story?

Nash: I pulled the contrarian Pat Michaels, very well known to Virginia readers especially, into the narrative as a vehicle to address this question: In any discussions about important scientific issues, how do we figure out whom to trust? It set up what I hope is a useful short list of suggestions for sifting through the media to weed out paid propaganda, conflicts of interest, and the unhealthy confusion of values-based assertions — which are also essential — with science data.

You list 12 possible climate actions Virginia might take. Can you prioritize that list? What two or three actions would you suggest Virginians try to take first?

Nash: I’ll go with these:

  • Enact natural areas management plans that will aid plant and animal migrations with protected corridors and landscapes. The plans should halt further commercial logging and roading on public lands, and manage forests to anticipate a hotter climate.
  • Campaign for “no-take” marine sanctuaries to protect fish stocks and the rest of Virginia’s offshore estate, to add to this ecosystem’s potential for survival under the threats of warming and acidification. We have almost no protection of this kind now — .02 percent of marine waters under Virginia’s jurisdiction, just half of one square mile, are designated “no-take” zones. We rank far behind other states in establishing this level of protection.
  • Put together a comprehensive plan to protect and expand coastal natural areas. Allow only absolutely necessary shoreline hardening in areas that will be impacted by sea level rise, and empower state agencies rather than local boards to make those decisions. A companion plan would specify where we should armor the shorelines to protect real estate that is too valuable to abandon, and plan for how that protection will be financed.

Editor’s Note: A Virginia Sierra Club member paid for, and the Club distributed, some 160 hardback copies of Virginia Climate Fever to 140 members of the state’s General Assembly in Richmond and to Virginia’s 11 House and 2 Senate members in Washington, says Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club of Virginia. He says 10 of the books were returned by members saying they could not accept gifts. All those who returned their copies of the books were registered as Republicans, Besa said.

Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines, and Forests. ISBN 978-0-8139-3658-1 (University of Virginia Press 2014, $24.95).

Photo: Map of Virginia (source: FreeWorldMaps).

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...