Climate equity prompts discussion at regional workshop

PHOTO COURTESY BILL LECATO/EASTERN SHORE COMMUNITY COLLEGE The workshop was the first of many events being planned to seek community input in a five-year, $5 million project that will partner residents and scientists to produce a climate equity atlas

BY CAROL VAUGHN, Eastern Shore Post —

The Great Hall at Eastern Shore Community College was abuzz with conversation Monday as around 70 Eastern Shore residents weighed in with tidbits of local knowledge about how climate change is affecting the region.

The Hampton Roads area, including the Eastern Shore, is second only to New Orleans in the nation in vulnerability to sea-level rise, according to scientists.

The sea level around Sewells Point has risen by 14 inches since 1950 and the rate has accelerated over the last decade — it’s now rising by one inch every four years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

Monday’s event, called a climate equity workshop, featured interactive stations where participants could give information about geographic locations meaningful to them, stories they want to share, how water is affecting their community (too much, too little, saltwater intrusion), and Shore history, among other topics.

“It’s a great opportunity for folks on the Eastern Shore to come together and collaborate and learn more about what’s going on with our climate and what to plan for in the future,” said Robert Sabbatini, Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce executive director, who was among the attendees.

The workshop was the first of many events being planned to seek community input in a five-year, $5 million project that will partner residents and scientists to produce a climate equity atlas — a computer mapping system researchers hope will inform local decisions about how to address climate change’s effects in a way that is fair to everybody.

The atlas will include layers with information about socio-economic and environmental factors as well as about social networks and decision making.

It could serve as a model for other regions impacted by climate change, according to lead investigator Karen McGlathery, director of the Univesity of Virginia’s Environmental Resilience Institute and principal investigator for the Virginia Coast Reserve Long-Term Ecological Research Project in Oyster.

‘Touches everybody’s life’

The project, funded by the National Science Foundation, is being carried out jointly by community members and social and natural scientists from the University of Virginia, the College of William & Mary, and Old Dominion University.

“The main message that we want to get out to the public is that this project in some way touches everybody’s life here on the Shore, whether they are on the water, farming, the school system — the whole gamut. This project will touch some aspect of their lives and we are looking for their input and engagement,” said Karen Downing, a local minister.

Downing and Eastern Shore YMCA Director Andre Elliott co-chair an advisory committee integral to the work — its members meet quarterly and include representatives from schools, the health department, the chamber of commerce, the community college, and the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission, among others.

Barbara Brown Wilson, a social scientist and faculty director of the U.Va. Equity Center working on the project, said, “A lot of my work is trying to figure out how we make decisions that have both local and scientific knowledge (behind them), which sometimes are the same thing, but sometimes we have local expertise that is much more robust than what scientists can know.”

The goal is for communities to make better, fairer decisions.

The workshop’s interactive format is something Wilson’s group has used successfully before, including in Albemarle County.

‘Facts and data’

A timeline, spanning from 1600 to the present, was among the most popular stations Monday.

By the workshop’s end, dozens of colorful sticky notes with lesser-known historical facts about the Shore contributed by participants decorated the printed timeline that covered one wall of the massive room.

“1926 – Route 13 is designated,” read one note.

“Survived hurricane Isabel — home was flooded 2003,” read another; yet another noted, “Increased sunny day flooding, Oyster, 2010s – 2020s.”

Workshop participants included local officials, planners, and everyday residents of both Shore counties, “from Cape Charles as well as Chincoteague as well as areas in between,” according to Downing.

Onancock Town Councilwoman Joy Marino was among officials there.

“It is important residents and public servants base their decisions on facts and data to become resilient and achieve climate equity,” Marino said, adding, “This workshop is part of the process to that goal.”

Still, not all Shore groups were well represented at the weekday event, including working people and minorities.

Future events will include focus groups where people can engage in deeper conversations and smaller events — including in the evening so working people can attend — to get input from specific groups, including farmers, watermen, Latinos, Haitian-Creoles, Blacks, and residents of Accomack’s three islands — Chincoteague, Tangier, and Saxis.

Additionally, university students will come to the Shore this summer to help advance the work.

“We want to definitely have more community engagement to give us a more holistic view of folks’ concerns about climate equity,” Downing said.

At the last station Monday, participants could indicate whether they want to participate in a focus group or otherwise help out. It’s not too late to do that.

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