The result of this month’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, with former governor Terry McAuliffe now poised to take on Republican Glenn Youngkin, makes it clear that climate change is on the ballot in Virginia this year.
That assessment might seem counterintuitive. Climate change is obviously a global problem. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has emphasized that it poses an existential national security risk. And President Biden recently promised that his administration would “cut greenhouse gases in half by the end of this decade.”
Yet federal politicians have failed for decades to lock in meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas pollution. President George H.W. Bush signed on to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 but insisted on voluntary targets and refused to commit to any timetable for action. President Barack Obama shepherded the Paris climate agreement into being but failed to win Senate support for his comprehensive plan to limit carbon emissions.
It has always been one step forward, two steps back when it comes to national climate policy. So forgive me if I look away from Washington in our planet’s hour of need. My eyes are firmly fixed on Richmond.
And in Richmond, there is reason for optimism.
In 2020, the General Assembly passed a Virginia Clean Economy Act, one of the most sweeping climate laws in the nation. Adopting a carrot-and-stick approach, it combines fossil-fuel retirements with renewable energy innovations. It also carves out space for existing, carbon-free nuclear power plants to remain a part of the energy mix.
These pieces come together to set Virginia on a path to meeting 100 percent of our electricity needs from zero-carbon sources by 2050. McAuliffe has campaigned on a plan to speed up that timeline by fifteen years, to 2035.
Indeed, McAuliffe begins the general-election campaign with a clear advantage on climate. As governor, he created a Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission, on which I served, to brainstorm solutions.
In stark contrast, Youngkin has pledged to “change direction from the clean energy plan that was passed.” Believing that a renewable energy boom is not “doable,” Youngkin seems to welcome a long-term reliance on fossil fuels. But such a reversal embraces a head-in-sand approach that fails on two fronts.
First, it ignores the urgent need to decarbonize at the state level. Second, it fails to appreciate that Virginia’s climate law is already intertwined with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a compact that brings together 11 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states to work collaboratively on reducing global warming pollution.
Still, the remarkable successes in Virginia and many other states will amount to nothing if progress is not sustained. That is why the focus needs to remain on state policy.
Tackling an unprecedented crisis such as climate change requires developing an enduring, zero-carbon economy. We need to build on today’s pollution reductions with broader decarbonization efforts in the near future. The policies we enact now and over the next four years will determine whether we are able to meet the moment.
So we need a governor who can work with the General Assembly to protect electricity prices for all Virginia families as we transition to a clean-energy grid. We need to focus on job creation for Southwest Virginia communities with historic ties to the coal and natural gas industries.
We need to prepare for climate emergencies — from extreme heat to coastal flooding — that we are too late to avoid. We need to safeguard thousands of Virginians working at Naval Station Norfolk, which is already facing problems caused by a rising sea level.
Environmental advocates might be tempted to shift focus to Congress, thinking that these challenges are above a state legislator’s pay grade. But, candidly, it remains inconceivable that a bill as robust as the Virginia Clean Economy Act would advance at the federal level today, even with Democrats in control of the House and Senate.
Bolder policies remain to be enacted before 2030 if we have any hope of meeting our climate-related challenges. Virginians should remember that as they listen to the candidates make their pitches in the coming months.