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Va. Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls vow to defy Trump on climate change

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidates Ralph Northam, left, and Tom Perriello, right, are calling on the state to join California, New York and Washington state in an alliance of jurisdictions determined to stick to carbon emission reduction targets. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

President Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the global Paris climate agreement has rippled into the Virginia gubernatorial nomination contests less than two weeks away.

The two Democratic candidates, former congressman Tom Perriello and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, condemned the move and called on Virginia to join California, New York and Washington state in an alliance of jurisdictions determined to stick to carbon emission reduction targets.

Republican primary front-runner Ed Gillespie, who toes a careful line when commenting on the president’s decisions in a state where Trump is deeply unpopular, said Friday that the Paris climate pact was not the “appropriate means” for cutting emissions. His rivals for the GOP nomination, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors Corey A. Stewart (At Large) and state Sen. Frank W. Wagner (Virginia Beach), praised Trump on social media hours after his Thursday announcement.

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The vast majority of climate scientists agree that climate change is primarily caused by human activity, and the Paris climate pact brought every country except Nicaragua and Syria in agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump and other critics said the agreement would hamper the American economy.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who cannot seek consecutive terms under the state's constitution, ordered state officials weeks ago to craft regulations to impose a statewide carbon cap before he leaves office. His spokesman expressed interest in joining a multistate alliance but said the governor was just learning details of the pact.

Virginia's coastal Tidewater region ranks second to New Orleans in terms of population threatened by sea-level rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Half of the inland counties face water shortages in the next 30 years due to climate change, McAuliffe says.

“As the first governor in the nation to take executive action on climate and clean energy in the Trump era, Governor McAuliffe is proud to lead the way in cutting carbon and growing Virginia’s economy,” said Brian Coy, a spokesman for McAuliffe.

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But the continuation of McAuliffe’s policies, condemned by Republicans who control the legislature, depend on who wins the governor’s mansion in November. Voters will choose the major party nominees June 13.

Polls have shown Gillespie far ahead with Republican voters and a tight race for the Democratic nomination.

Throughout his campaign, Perriello has sought an edge by channeling the energy and frustrations of Democratic activists aghast at the president and his policies.

He seized on the climate issue, posting a video on Facebook condemning Trump’s actions that has since drawn 8,000 views and called for Virginia to join the state climate alliance soon after it was announced.

“Donald Trump has made his choice: He won’t lift a finger to prevent sea levels from rising in Hampton Roads, won’t do a thing to stop homeowners’ insurance rates from soaring along the Chesapeake Bay, and couldn’t care less if Virginia’s coastlines fall victim to devastating storms,” Perriello said in a statement. “As governor, I will not wait for the worst to happen before taking action.”

Northam, who hails from climate-change-threatened Norfolk, also offered condemnation shortly after Trump’s announcement and expressed interest in joining the state alliance during a radio interview Friday morning.

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“The President through his actions and rhetoric has set back American leadership on the world stage years,” Northam said in a statement. “This action is dangerous, and will hurt the health, economies, and environments of Virginia communities.”

On Friday, Perriello’s campaign repeatedly touted his environmental credentials and posted on social media about the impacts of climate change on Virginia.

He won praise from environmental groups this week after signing a pledge to not accept money from the fossil fuel industry, including oil, natural gas and coal companies, although he has previously taken money from their employees. Perriello has also refused to take money from Virginia’s energy giant Dominion Power, which has donated about $100,000 to Northam throughout his career.

Perriello's pledge and reaction to Trump's decision were cited in a Friday endorsement from Michael Mann, a former climate scientist at the University of Virginia who became a hero of environmentalists after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) tried to investigate him on suspicion of manipulating climate change data.

On the Republican side of the race, candidates spent little time responding to the withdrawal from the Paris pact beyond offering support.

“We can protect our environment while ensuring that we don’t act in a manner that hurts job creation in the Commonwealth, or punishes Virginians with higher energy costs,” said Gillespie. “I am opposed to joining California and New York just as I am opposed to the job-killing cap and trade policies put forward by the McAuliffe-Northam administration.”

Wagner, who recently called a legislative hearing to question the McAuliffe administration on its unilateral climate policies, said a state climate change alliance would hurt jobs.

“I don’t want New York’s economy,” he said. “These are three liberal governors … and I don’t want any part of us aligning ourselves with those people.”

Stewart, who campaigns as a Trump loyalist, said in a statement he had little desire to join an “economic suicide pact with California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and other dying liberal states that are overburdening businesses with job-killing regulations, higher taxes, fewer jobs, bankrupt pension systems, no future, and no hope.”

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.