Policies to change building codes in flood plains and on shorelines, construct offshore wind turbines and manage suburban sprawl could gain political traction, officials hope, as recent extreme weather renews a conversation on climate change in Maryland and nationally.

State efforts to adapt to what officials are calling a "new normal" climate took center stage in a U.S. Senate hearing on climate change Wednesday, the first in 21/2 years. The state plans to begin integrating expectations of higher sea levels and more violent weather into government programs and policies by year's end.

Such changes are necessary, officials said, as Maryland and the nation endure a hot, dry summer, the latest in what seems like a surge in severe weather.

In Maryland, it could prove to be the deadliest weather in years — an updated tally shows heat-related deaths reaching 34, equaling last year's total with nearly two months of summer left. July, which started with recovery from 762,000 power outages amid 100-degree heat, ended up being the fifth-hottest on record in Baltimore.

The latest heat victims were an elderly Baltimore County woman and two elderly men in Wicomico and Montgomery counties, state officials said Tuesday. No other information on the victims was available. The death toll reached 47 in 2005 and 50 in 2002.

The circumstances are not only prompting a push for a closer look at the electricity grid, but for broader initiatives to prepare for extreme heat, snow, storms and flooding some scientists say could be coming.

"We cannot tolerate the type of disruptions we had just a few weeks ago," Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin said at the hearing. Adapting to climate change should be considered "a public-safety issue," he said.

Maryland is particularly vulnerable to climate change because it has the fourth-longest shoreline among the states, testified state Natural Resources Secretary John R. Griffin, one of three panelists invited to discuss programs under way and still needed to prepare for climate change. Global warming risks billions of dollars in waterfront property and investment, wildlife and entire Chesapeake Bay islands, he said.

Climate change is still far from a certainty to many. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama displayed charts showing more low-temperature records set in recent decades than high-temperature records. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, pointed out that Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe has called global warming an elaborate hoax. Sanders asked the scientists if it was a hoax.

The scientists confirmed that most in their field see climate change as an "unequivocal" fact, but some disagree.

"How much can we demand this economy pay to meet [what] is not being proven by empirical fact?" Sessions said.

Regardless of whether humans and pollution have contributed to climate change, efforts should be made to reverse it, Cardin argued. Severe weather has taken lives and damaged crops and property in Maryland and across the country this year.

The first half of 2012 was the warmest on record for the continental United States, and a drought deemed the nation's worst since 1956 is affecting more than half of the counties across the country, agriculture officials said Wednesday.

July's average temperature atBaltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airportof 81.4 degrees made it the 18th consecutive month of above-average temperatures. The temperature was a few tenths lower than that of July 2011 and July 2010.

Griffin, as chairman of Gov.Martin O'Malley's Climate Change Commission, is helping to evaluate and promote a host of proposals aimed at reducing the state's greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for extreme weather. A draft plan for reducing emissions is available for public comment through Aug. 17. After that, the report could spawn new regulations, executive orders or bills to be considered in the next legislative session, Griffin said in an interview.

Some efforts, such as policies to protect shorelines and prevent damage from rising sea levels and storm surges, are continuing, Griffin said. More work is being done with county governments to adjust shoreline building codes and restrict building in flood plains, for example, he said.

Elements of the greenhouse gas emissions plan include O'Malley's plans for offshore wind power, torpedoed each of the last two regular legislative sessions; electric car incentive programs; and the promotion of energy efficiency. O'Malley also recently stressed a need to adapt the electricity grid to climate change, launching a work group to study reliability.

O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said it's too early to say what will be in the administration's legislative agenda for the 2013 General Assembly session, but some environmental proposals are likely.

Officials recognized that it can be difficult to muster support for some policies if the benefit is far off. Events like the June derecho could help change that, Griffin said.

"We would hope that for Marylanders it has them stopping and thinking more about all these harsh weather events and what it all means," Griffin said. "You've got to get enough people to visualize the future, given what we're seeing, and doing things differently now to make things livable for people in the future. That's always a difficult proposition because everyone is so focused on the here and now, particularly in the recession."

sdance@baltsun.com

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An earlier version of this article attributed the following quote to the wrong person: "How much can we demand this economy pay to meet [what] is not being proven by empirical fact?" It was said by Sen. Jeff Sessions. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.