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Overcoming Impending Sea Level Rise in Virginia Through Rural Economic Development

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tucker Keener and Gilbert Michaud
August 29, 2020

Climate change continues to be a pressing issue across the globe, and many predict that its severity will increase in the coming decades without behavioral alterations. Among other drivers, climate change has been fueled by the prolonged use of fossil fuels for electricity generation, transportation and other applications. While many point to the harmful air emissions impacts with the use of fossil fuels, one other potentially disastrous ramification is sea level rise. Sea level rise is largely a result of the melting of glaciers and ice sheets due to increasing global temperatures, and, in the United States, could pointedly affect coastal cities/areas if the rise of oceans continues at its current pace.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in their now infamous 2018 report: “Increasing warming amplifies the exposure of small islands, low-lying coastal areas and deltas to the risks associated with sea level rise for many human and ecological systems, including increased saltwater intrusion, flooding and damage to infrastructure.” At this juncture, there is general agreement among scientists and other researchers that pollutants released into the atmosphere have harmful impacts on both human and natural systems, and without aggressive mitigation strategies, it may become pressing to protect or relocate people that live in, or close to, coastal areas.

Several governments and other organizations have been developing potential strategies to address the impending challenges of sea level rise. For instance, the build out of seawalls to prevent erosion and protect coastal populations and property has been used in certain geographies, such as Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Virginia, among others. Further, the use of eminent domain to compel folks away from the coast to more inland areas may also be a strategy, which refers to government acquiring private land for public purposes (typically with compensation), and has been employed in states like California. Moreover, certain economic incentives, such as partial student loan forgiveness, have sometimes been employed to nudge populations to targeted areas, such as rural and depressed counties. Each of these strategies comes with their share of pros and cons, yet they represent diverse opportunities for states and jurisdictions facing looming sea level rise challenges.

Focusing on this latter strategy, it is worth pointing out that some states have already taken measures to encourage citizens to relocate to rural areas, such as the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has a particularly large coastal population. In fact, the Hampton Roads region is second to only New Orleans in terms of the most populated area at risk due to sea level rise in the country. Specific governmental rural development incentives that currently exist in Virginia include programs offered through the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

For instance, the Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission offers funds for student debt repayment, with a focus of attracting people to one of 40 tobacco-impacted localities in Southwest and Southside Virginia. In particular, the Commission gives a total of $24,000 to recent college graduates willing to live in one of these localities for at least two years (which can be renewed), and work in certain in-demand jobs, such as a public school teacher. Further, partnering with the Virginia Department of Health, the Commission offers up to $140,000 in loan repayments over a 4-year period to folks who fill in healthcare jobs in these same underserved areas. More comprehensively, Go Regions also exist in Virginia as broader rural economic development organizations that help with growth and diversification strategies, grant applications and other regional development projects in these counties facing unemployment hardships and loss of manufacturing jobs. While these incentive programs are not specific to potential victims of sea level rise, they represent already existing strategies that could be leveraged to encourage folks living in coastal areas to relocate to other parts of the state.

These Virginia-specific rural development examples offer a glimpse of local or state innovation that could help overcome the challenges of sea level rise. However, to many, these represent reactionary, temporary solutions. Broader climate innovation strategies may be needed to address emissions, the core stimulus of the sea level rise issue. Fortunately, climate change and environmental policy has become an enhanced talking point and, in many ways, a new norm among all levels of government across the United States. To illustrate, there has been much discussion of a Green New Deal at the federal level, especially with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, as well as newly-announced VP pick Kamala Harris, who is considered by many as an environmental justice champion. There have also been several movements by younger generations striving for positive environmental change. Currently, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that the federal government should act more aggressively to combat climate change. Beyond the federal government, states should also start thinking about ways to be mindful of, and take action on, zero-carbon emissions strategies for electricity generation and transportation in the face of temperature rise, especially while there is momentum and a heightened focus on climate change issues.

Authors: Tucker Keener is an undergraduate student in political science and sociology at Christopher Newport University. His research interests include environmental policy and justice, and he can be reached at [email protected] Dr. Gilbert Michaud is an Assistant Professor of Practice at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University. Michaud can be reached at [email protected].

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