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Nash: Climate Change, Lynchburg's Heat and Silence
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Nash: Climate Change, Lynchburg's Heat and Silence

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What does the Lynchburg area have in common with Indiana? A consistent vote for conservative candidates, for one thing. And maybe this common ground, too: growing — but largely silent — worries about climate change.

The heat has been gathering fast here in Virginia for decades, according to the State Climatology Office (see chart), and will be catastrophic if the trend continues. Sea level rise is already starting to swamp our coastal cities. None of that is in question. Indiana’s feeling its own impacts but they — and we — aren’t talking much about the threat and how to meet it. Why?

Well, Indiana’s conservatism is not to be doubted. It ranks first among the states in the percentage of its population that identifies as conservative. Its former governor is Vice President Mike Pence. Donald Trump won the state in 2016 by nearly 20 points, and the president calls global climate research “fake science.”

But recent intensive polling and interviewing by Indiana University finds unexpected data: a majority of voters there accept that climate change is real — including 66 percent of Republicans — and their concern is growing. (The figure was 91 percent for Democrats). A strong majority of those polled — 75 percent — support initiatives to address climate change impacts.

Just the same, most of them think that’s a minority opinion, the survey found. And that misperception, IU researcher Matt Houser tells me, is crucial. It means that fewer people want to say much about climate change at all, especially among friends and relatives. They’re afraid they’ll give offense, or be challenged, or that theirs is an isolated, minority opinion without much support in the community.

The paralysis matters. It echoes national research about what’s called “second order opinion” — beliefs about the beliefs of others. It means we don’t talk as freely about the growing impacts of climate change in Indiana or Virginia — and what to do about the threat. And it misleads our conservative area legislators like delegates Kathy Byron, Matt Fariss, Terry Austin, Scott Garrett and Ronnie Campbell, and state senators Mark Peake, Steve Newman and Frank Ruff. They all vote as if they think it’s safe, at least in political terms, to keep on ignoring the biggest challenge now facing humankind.

What do folks around Lynchburg, or Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell counties, believe about climate change? You may be surprised. A long-term Yale University study has just updated its estimates for this area, based on demographics. Throughout this conservative area, more than half of adults believe global warming is happening now. How many are worried about it? Half or more. About 70 percent support teaching about global warming in local schools.

Add in Campbell County to this regional picture and you see strong majorities, sometimes more than 70 percent across the area, that support these policies: impose strict carbon dioxide limits on power plants; make fossil fuel companies pay a carbon tax; give tax rebates for solar panels and electric cars. Most agree that “my governor should do more to address global warming.” The statement “environmental protection is more important than economic growth” also has very strong majority support — above 60 percent — and about that number are also worried about harm to future generations from global warming.

Pretty clearly, then, most adults around here are anxious about climate change. But you haven’t been aware, perhaps, that you’re in the majority. So, as in Indiana, you may not be talking this over with friends and family or — crucially — with legislators.

Is it time yet? Well, September was the planet’s warmest September since record-keeping began in 1880, according to our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. September was the 417th consecutive month with above-average global temperatures. That’s 34 years of accelerating heat. It added that 2019 “is a lock to be among the five hottest years in Earth’s recorded history.”

It’s easy for you to contact those state delegates and senators we’ve just re-elected. Now’s the best time, while they’re near home, at their local offices. You can find them right away at the non-partisan Virginia Public Access Project, VPAP.org, just by typing in your address. Let them know what’s on your mind about climate change. Hear their thinking, and let them hear yours. You’re in the majority. They probably don’t yet know it.

Nash, a visiting senior research scholar at the University of Richmond, is the author of “Virginia Climate Fever: How Global Warming Will Transform Our Cities, Shorelines, and Forests,” published by the University of Virginia Press. He wrote this column for The News & Advance.

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