Public now believing the science

Published 5:19 pm Tuesday, September 24, 2019

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It has taken super hurricanes, excessively hot summers and a melting Artic ice cap, but Americans are finally beginning to realize that the world is warming, and doing so with alarming speed.

More important, it now appears that about 8 out of every 10 Americans believe that human activity is fueling climate change. And a majority of Americans are becoming increasingly alarmed at the frantic rollback of the environmental regulations that were aimed at mitigating the detriment of human activity.

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There are still naysayers, of course, and there always have been, but they are becoming more isolated as the general public becomes savvier.

I’ve been writing about the environment for a half-century, mostly covering matters related to water quality and the precarious condition of the Chesapeake Bay. It’s been one of the most interesting areas I’ve had the pleasure to report on. During those years, I’ve seen the body of scientific knowledge grow exponentially, from the days when Virginia Institute of Marine Science experts were working to discover the cause of seasonal fish kills, through the collapse of the Bay’s oyster population, now to the point where the Bay’s oyster industry is beginning to recover.

Though much has changed, one thing that hasn’t is the adamancy with which environmental critics dismiss environmental decline and those attempting to reverse it.

During my earliest days of covering the county, I learned not to use the word “environmentalist” too loosely, because it was often, at least in rural Virginia, considered an insult to be one. Those who professed concerns about the environment were called, among other disparaging terms, “tree huggers” and “moose and goose people.”

It’s never wise to over-generalize, but attitudes do tend to follow self-interest, and watching environmental issues unfold has inevitably led to several basic conclusions.

First, those who benefit the most from loose or no environmental constraints will generally be the most vocal “anti” voices when environmental concerns are discussed.

For example, when the Army Corps of Engineers began cataloguing “upland” wetlands (what we generally know as swamps or low, wet areas) and making an effort to protect them, there was a howl from, among others, landowners who wanted to sell property to developers and the developers who wanted to buy it.

The benefits of such low, water-absorbing areas to the overall watershed is well documented, but development has often won the argument, and poorly drained land has been developed, a lot of it right here in Smithfield and Isle of Wight.

The same is true of rules governing runoff from farms, homes and businesses, and the imposition of “Resource Protection Area” restrictions around shorelines. Anyone who feels adversely affected by the rules will just naturally oppose those rules.

But the other side of the coin is that most people have never felt sufficiently threatened by environmental degradation to become activists — or even particularly vocal — on behalf of the environment. There’s just been no fire in the belly by the general public to see broader environmental protection imposed because they haven’t been able to see how environmental degradation directly impacts them.

So, on one side you have people and companies (including some of the nation’s most powerful) actively working to reduce environmental regulation, and on the other, up until now, a public that just isn’t energized to fight for the environment.

Add to that Americans’ natural propensity for “less government,” and you have the breeding ground for the current administration’s all-out assault on anything aimed at slowing global warming or protecting the nation’s natural resources, including our drinking water.

That could be changing, and change may be driven by that combination of major changes that I mentioned at the beginning. Are our grandchildren really going to see much of Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Hampton under water in the next 50 years? Is the remainder of the South American rainforest really going to disappear, taking with it the earth’s largest single supplier of oxygen? Will the Mississippi Valley continue to experience 100-year floods every year or two?

The United States should be leading the world in trying to reverse or at least slow climate change, and more locally, we should refuse to accept any deregulation of water quality standards that will further threaten a fragile Chesapeake Bay.

I’m still enough of an optimist to believe we will restore our commitment to the natural health of our nation and the world. I just hope the change in attitude doesn’t come too late to make a difference.