While the rising oceans of a warming world eat away at, among many other places, the city of Norfolk Virginia, the state’s wingnut attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, spends his days suing the federal government to prevent it from regulating greenhouse gases, and trying to convict a University of Virginia scientist of fraud for having the temerity to conclude that the world’s climate is being changed by pollution.
Norfolk, the second-largest city in Virginia, located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, faces the same rising sea levels that beset all the settlements and establishments on the U.S. East Coast. But Norfolk’s seawater problems are worse than most because as the sea is rising, Norfolk is sinking, so that overall, sea level has risen more than 14 inches since 1930. Everyone except Virginia’s attorney general and his fellow members of the Know-Nothing Coalition understands that the waters will continue to rise for the next century or so.
As the New York Times reports today, people on the water’s edge in Norfolk are dealing with ever-more-frequent and ever-more-serious tidal flooding of their streets and homes, even in the absence of any major storm strikes in recent years. That run of luck cannot continue much longer in the face of the rising frequency and intensity of tropical hurricanes. But in the absence of a hurricane, the full moon is enough to flood, for example, a riverside street in the Larchmont neighborhood. And a merely average storm is enough to flood the houses along that street.
The response of governments at every level — dominated, apparently, by Mr. Cuccinelli’s coalition of the unknowing — has been consistent: bandaids, platitudes and denial. Norfolk is going to raise the street 18 inches, at a cost of $1.25 million. The federal government has “fixed” the flooding of the homes by raising them a few inches. Thus they demonstrate the most sacred canon of modern American government: it is far better to appear to be doing something, than to do something.
Yet the water is rising, and although it has been possible for the Cuccinellis to ignore it and deny it thus far, it will not be denied much longer because their feet are getting wet. Even the city council of Norfolk, when told bluntly by their own Public Works Department that they are facing costly damage to land and infrastructure, had to begin to start to think seriously about the near future. According to the New York Times, Mayor Paul Fraim has said that “if” the water keeps rising (yes, let’s not rush to judgment on that until we see whether Mr. Cuccinelli gets his fraud conviction) the city might have to create what he euphemistically called “retreat zones.” How does a house, or a factory or a high-rise apartment building “retreat?” At what cost and with what money? And to what effect, if the “retreat zone” is anywhere east of the Blue Ridge Mountains? No comment on these matters has been forthcoming.
Instead, the brief, stark view of a grueling future for Norfolk was, as usual, quickly drowned out by chamber-of-commerce boosterism and irrational exuberance, from, of all people, the acting head of the city department whose report depressed the mayor. Kristen Lentz says she prefers to think of the aforementioned, nonexistent contingency plans for relocating a city of a quarter of a million people as “new zoning opportunities.”
A thousand years ago, a wise king who had united England and the Viking homelands under his rule decided he needed to deal with the arrogance of his courtiers, whose hubris and denial of reality approached that of today’s state attorneys general. Canute had his throne carried to the beach, gathered his staff, and with all the ceremony at his command ordered the tide to desist from coming in. The result — wet feet all around — was meant as a lesson about the silliness of bandaids, platitudes and denial in the face of the raw power of nature.
Hello, Norfolk? Mr. Cuccinelli? Call from King Canute.