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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Climate change may still be an abstract concept to many, but in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, it is very real. Rising sea levels have made flooding a regular part of life there. Scientists say coal-burning power plants are a leading cause of climate change, and Virginia is a major coal-producing state. NPR's Brian Naylor reports from a region at the frontlines of the climate change debate.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Skip Stiles stands on the edge of a small inlet, known as The Hague near downtown Norfolk. The Chrysler Museum of Art is nearby, as are dozens of stately homes - all threatened by the water.

SKIP STILES: We've got these - lots of old buildings around here. This apartment building, that church over there - been around since the turn of the last century. And you can sort of mark where the storms have come over the years, and you can see the progress of these storms as they come farther and farther up onto these buildings.

NAYLOR: Stiles is Executive Director of Wetlands Watch, a Virginia environmental group. The church over there, he mentioned, is the Unitarian Church of Norfolk - likely one of the few houses of worship in America with a link to a tide chart on its website. The Reverend Jennifer Slade is the minister.

REVEREND JENNIFER SLADE: People literally cannot get to church or may decide not to come because high tide's going to be at a certain time, and they may not be able to get out.

NAYLOR: Needless to say, this has caused the church and its members some problems. No one has been stranded yet, but Reverend Slade says a memorial service over the weekend was carefully planned.

SLADE: We actually had to time the memorial service and the reception to make sure that the service and the reception could happen before high tide.

NAYLOR: The Unitarian Church is considering moving to a new building. There are a number of reasons, but a big one is the flooding. Repeated high water forced the art museum to move its heating and cooling systems out of the basement onto an upper level. Larry Atkinson is co-director of the Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative at Old Dominion University - says the problems the church and the museum are facing are repeated throughout the region.

LARRY ATKINSON: When there's a higher high tide and there's a heavy rainstorm, there's just no place for water to go. So there's been a lot of storm-water management, a lot of roads being raised - downtown Norfolk - there's a big sea wall with tide gates to protect the downtown financial district.

NAYLOR: Not all of the Hampton Road's flooding problems can be blamed on climate change. Atkinson says the region is also slowly sinking, making the low-lying areas that much more vulnerable to flooding. But there's also no doubt that sea levels in the area have been rising - as much as a foot over the last 80 years or so. And the Virginia Institute of Marine Science report predicts another foot and a half rise over the next 50 years.

The government says the region, historically dependent on the sea for centuries, is the most vulnerable to sea level rise on the East Coast. Along with the world's largest naval port, Norfolk is also home to the hemisphere's biggest coal terminal, where long trains full of coal from throughout Appalachia empty their loads into waiting ships for export around the world. This promotional video was produced by the terminal's owner, Norfolk Southern.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROMOTIONAL VIDEO).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pier 6 opened in 1962 as the hemisphere's largest, fastest and most efficient coal trans-loading facility. In short, it is a pier without peer.

NAYLOR: Puns aside, it also makes Norfolk the nexus of the debate between coal and climate. Skip Stiles of Wetlands Watch.

STILES: There is a bit of an irony that Norfolk has the largest coal export facility in North America, and we've also got the highest rate of sea level rise on the East Coast - can't escape that irony.

NAYLOR: The irony, in fact, isn't going away. Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia says his state has to protect the jobs coal producers while it deals with the harm caused by putting carbon into the air.

SENATOR TIM KAINE: We're going to continue to use coal. I mean, nobody is saying just throw a brake on the 35 or 40 percent of American energy production that's coal. So in Virginia, we have coal to worry about. We also have sea level rise to worry about.

NAYLOR: In Tidewater Virginia, that worry is a day-to-day thing. The city of Norfolk is considering a multi million dollar plan to erect new flood barriers, but it's unclear where that money will come from. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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