Killer heat will become common in Virginia without serious action, report finds

By Keya Vakil

July 16, 2019

Virginia typically sees 31 days per year with a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but that number could more than double to 75 days per year by 2050, and reach 106 days per year by century’s end, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy organization.

The report and an accompanying peer-reviewed study were published in Environmental Research Communications and found that virtually the entire United States would be plagued by extreme heat by midcentury unless global action is taken to reduce emissions. 

The analysis, titled “Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days” found that the Southeast region, which includes Virginia, would be hit the hardest by extreme heat.

How bad would things get in Virginia? 

Historically, Virginia experiences an average of five days per year with a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That number would increase by more than 600%, to 33 days per year by midcentury, and 60 days per year by century’s end. Fredericksburg, Richmond and Williamsburg would see a particularly high frequencies of these days. 

By 2100, 6.9 million Virginians would be exposed to a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit for the equivalent of two or more months per year, and 7.3 million Virginians would be exposed to a heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit for the equivalent of a month or more per year.

Perhaps most jarring, the report found that by the end of the century, roughly 3.2 million Virginians would endure a week or more of “off-the-charts” heat days – days so extreme that they exceed the upper limits of the National Weather Service heat index scale, which tops out at or above a heat index of 127°F, depending on the combination of temperature and humidity.

To prevent this extreme heat-filled future from coming to fruition, the Union of Concerned Scientists make the case for limiting warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels, which is in line with the Paris Climate Agreement. 

The report also includes several recommendations for governments:

  • Investing in heat-resilient infrastructure
  • Creating heat adaptation and emergency response plans
  • Expanding funding for programs to provide cooling assistance to low- and fixed-income households
  • Directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set up protective occupational standards for workers during extreme heat
  • Requiring utilities to keep power on for residents during extreme heat events
  • Investing in research, data tools and public communication to better predict extreme heat and keep people safe

Whether governments take heed of the recommendations or not is a whole other issue. Republican lawmakers have long denied the existence of climate change, turning scientific fact into a partisan issue.

Meanwhile, recent polls have actually shown that there’s widespread agreement on the reality of climate change among voters. 

A 2018 poll from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that a majority of registered voters in Virginia (71%) believe global warming is happening, with 62% saying they were worried about climate change. 

There is also bipartisan support for policies that would tackle climate change. Eighty-six percent of registered Virginia voters support funding more research into renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, 78% support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and 71% support setting strict carbon dioxide emission limits on existing coal-fired power plants.

Republican politicians may deny climate change and hesitate to take action, but voters, even Republican ones, clearly support action. Indeed, roughly 6-in-10 Virginia voters want their local lawmakers to do more to address global warming.

Despite this support, and despite the overwhelming consensus that Virginia faces severe consequences from climate change, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has done almost nothing to fight climate change.

The report from the Union of Concerned Scientists is blunt about the consequences of not acting.

“The implications of this analysis are profound: in many places, extreme heat will lead to an increase in deaths or illnesses, disrupt long-standing ways of life, force people to stay indoors to keep cool, and perhaps even drive large numbers of people away from areas that become too unpleasant or impractical to live.

“We have no time to waste to prevent an unrecognizably hot future from becoming reality. We must act now to address the climate crisis,” the report concludes.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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