A ferry passes the General Dynamic shipyard in Norfolk. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
A ferry passes the General Dynamics shipyard in Norfolk. Norfolk's naval base, the world's largest, is threatened by sea-level rise. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

WASHINGTON — Climate change could cost Virginia coastal cities billions of dollars and put communities and military facilities at risk, a special assistant to the governor warned federal lawmakers this week.

Ann Phillips, who is in charge of helping the state respond to climate change on Virginia’s coastline for Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, told the U.S. House Budget Committee Wednesday that large-scale federal action is needed to address the looming threat. Virginia localities are already paying to respond to coastal floods, hurricanes and severe weather associated with climate change.

“There is an urgent need for a coordinated federal effort to deal with the impacts this is causing for us,” said Phillips, a retired Navy rear admiral and the special assistant to the governor for coastal adaptation and protection. The Virginia legislature created the cabinet-level post last year.

Philips joined other business leaders, health experts and former military commanders who warned the House Budget Committee of impending disaster if there is no plan to address the rising sea levels, warmer temperatures, more frequent floods and other severe weather events that come from global climate change.

“One reality with climate change, the cost of doing nothing greatly exceeds the cost of doing something,” said Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott.

Virginia has 10,000 miles of shoreline that are subject to tides, so coastal flooding and rising sea levels have significant effects on the state — both for coastal communities and the military. Five Hampton Roads military facilities were all included on a recent list of “most vulnerable infrastructure” by the Navy and Air Force, due to threats of recurrent flooding.

“We are dealing with water where we did not plan for it to be,” Phillips said. “We are not simply preparing. We are living with water now.”

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science Sea Level Report Card estimated sea levels could rise an additional 18 inches by mid-century. That could cause devastating effects for coastal cities, Phillips said. An analysis for Virginia Beach estimated the city could spend upwards of $77 million a year to respond to flooding destruction if sea levels rise.

“The longer we wait [to respond to climate change] the more expensive those costs will rise, and the window and variety of options we have will decrease,” Philips told the panel. “We are behind. We are behind in preparing coastal Virginia. We are behind in preparing the Department of Defense. We are chasing the target because we are not willing to engage up front to set standards and plan appropriately.”

Virginia coastal cities are working on plans to try to plan for and respond to coastal changes. The City of Norfolk has estimated it could spend $1.57 billion on proposed projects to deal with coastal storm risks. Virginia Beach estimated it needs $2.4 billion to reduce risks from flooding and climate impacts.

‘Apollo-type’ investment 

Other experts called on the federal government to develop and invest in a sweeping, coordinated effort to solve the problems posed by climate change.

“If we do nothing and continue business as usual, that stability that we have built human civilization on is absolutely over, and we are going to take ourselves into a place, not to be apocalyptic, but we are going to take ourselves into a place where we have not seen civilization before,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. David Titley, now a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University.

Titley called on the federal government to develop a massive response, just as the country once did in what seemed a  near-impossible race to the moon 50 years ago. He said $100 billion to $200 billion in an “Apollo-type project” with defined goals could help address the problem.

“The way we buy down this risk is to ultimately decarbonize not only the U.S., but the world economy. And then we can get back to stability and can manage this problem,” said Titley.

Without a massive investment, experts warned the cost to respond to the problems associated with climate change could rise to the hundreds of billions — or even trillions — of dollars. Titley said sea level rise alone could cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars.

“Really what we are talking about when we talk about climate change and the budget is the cost of doing nothing,” said Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “That is one of the things we have to remain focused on — doing nothing is really not an alternative for this country.”

In terms of public health, climate change could cause more respiratory illnesses, threaten safe water supplies, and lead to more more heat stroke and insect-borne diseases, according to Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Those risks could have even greater effects for low-income communities and communities of color, Benjamin said.

For food and agriculture, it could significantly increase the cost of growing food and producing products.

“Climate change for us is a risk to our ability to continue operating,” said Stefani Millie Grant, senior manager for external affairs and sustainability for the trans-national food and household product giant Unilever.

Americans currently spend, on average, about 12.7% of their household budget on food. But climate change could ramp up costs so that rises to 60 to 70% of total household budget, Grant said.

“We ask government to put a policy out there, put a policy out there and help us get there. We can’t do it all ourselves,” Grant said

Republicans said market forces and the private sector — rather than the government — should drive the response.

“The private sector is already working to reduce emissions at their own pace, which is relatively rapid,” said Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.). He said businesses and the Army training facility in his district are already use renewable energy like solar or geothermal to lower costs and increase efficiencies.

“We need to look at trends and be data-driven and economically feasible,” Meuser said.

Ice ‘just keeps melting’ 

The House Budget Committee is tackling the costs of climate change as a group of House lawmakers floated new plans this week to address efforts to curb emissions.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he wants his panel to create a concrete plan by the end of the year that would result in net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. His panel also held a hearing on the issue Wednesday.

The more progressive wing of the Democratic Party has rallied around a different ambitious proposal, the Green New Deal, which sets a goal for a carbon-free economy by 2030.

The Budget Committee does not have jurisdiction to advance either of those proposals, but it can set spending levels that affect federal investment.

Lawmakers are preparing to vote this week on a new bipartisan budget deal that would suspend the debt ceiling and raise spending caps, allowing the government to spend more money on climate or other programs.

“The deal to raise budget caps empowers us to continue making an investment in clean energy and resilience, while avoiding the potentially damaging fiscal and environmental effects of the sequester,” Yarmuth said at the hearing.

The House is scheduled to vote on the measure Thursday and the Senate is expected to take up the vote next week.

“The ice, unfortunately, doesn’t care what our discretionary funding is, it just keeps melting,” said Titley.