The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Climate change, like the coronavirus, requires hard choices and leadership

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Fox Island Environmental Education Program at the Lodge on Fox Island, Va., closed  for good because of rising sea levels and erosion.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Fox Island Environmental Education Program at the Lodge on Fox Island, Va., closed for good because of rising sea levels and erosion. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Rebecca R. Rubin and Sam Bleicher, former members of the State Air Pollution Control Board, are members of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters Board of Directors.

We find ourselves in unprecedented times. The novel coronavirus pandemic has upended daily life here in Virginia, across the country and the world.

  Pandemics pose complex threats that affect all of us and demonstrate just how interconnected we are, along with the actions we choose to take or ignore.

The climate crisis, too, is a complex, global problem, one that affects us all, and one that will take widespread, coordinated action to fully address. It will require citizens to make behavioral changes and elected leaders at all levels of government to make hard choices — similar to what is required to address the coronavirus here in Virginia, and elsewhere. One expert has described the crisis as a “dress rehearsal” for the climate disruptions ahead.

Though we still have much work in the commonwealth to comprehensively address climate change, this year the legislature took significant first steps.

Most notable, we moved our state from the back of the pack to one of the states at the forefront of cutting harmful power plant emissions. In passing the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA), a bold plan to decarbonize the electricity sector by 2045, lawmakers put the commonwealth on a clear and aggressive trajectory away from carbon and toward a stronger economy and a cleaner environment.

We recognize that the VCEA, as just one piece of legislation, does not address many of the complex problems that come with electricity generation and distribution, especially a regulatory scheme that still favors big monopolies such as Dominion Energy. More work remains to be done before progress can be made in addressing these systemic issues. Similarly, renewable energy is not a silver bullet; from development to emplacement to disposal, renewables have issues of their own for humans and wildlife. The VCEA does, however, commit the commonwealth to cleaner energy and a healthier environment in a way that’s never happened in Virginia.

  The VCEA implements Virginia’s first-ever mandatory standards for renewable energy deployment and utility-led investments in energy efficiency, which ensures build-out of solar and wind energy and a cleaner, more efficient grid, instead of costly and dirty fossil fuel infrastructure that we pay for twice: in our monthly electric bills and in health effects.

  The VCEA also includes provisions that require regulators to take into account the social cost of carbon when making decisions about our energy future, breaking the model that ignored the very real consequences that fossil fuel pollution has for Virginians’ health, our climate and our vulnerable communities.  

The legislature also voted to finalize Virginia’s membership in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multistate cap-and-invest program, which, since 2009, has generated billions of dollars of public health benefits and investments that drive down pollution, decrease energy bills and accelerate the transition to clean energy.

Under the RGGI, which puts a price on carbon pollution, Virginia will see $100 million per year of estimated revenue, which will be divided between protections along our coast and in flood-prone communities and energy-efficiency programs for low-income Virginians — efforts that will protect public safety and our most vulnerable populations.  

While we’ve made substantial progress, the General Assembly’s work is not done.  

The transportation sector remains Virginia’s and our nation’s largest source of carbon pollution. In the commonwealth, tailpipes emit almost half of our state’s carbon emissions, and cutting this source of pollution is paramount to making lasting progress in the climate fight. This means incentivizing alternative-fuel and electric vehicles, along with charging infrastructure, while getting more Virginians off the road by investing in mass transit, especially in high-growth areas.  

Virginia must also do more to ensure a fair and balanced regulatory model that puts people ahead of industry profits as we make the clean energy transition over the coming years. No one should be left behind or overburdened.  

The pandemic stage of the coronavirus, as awful, threatening and disruptive as it is, is unlikely to last forever. We’ll get through it, learn from it. We’ll remember to listen to scientists and experts. Hopefully, our health-care infrastructure will be stronger as a result and our medical experts will develop a treatment or cure for this terrible virus.  

There is not and never will be a vaccine for climate change. It will last forever. We cannot wait until we suffer more widespread catastrophes to act. It will take years of leadership, hard choices and transformative change in Virginia, across the United States and in countries around the globe.

Read more:

Peter Galuszka: Virginia needs to take action on climate change — before it’s too late

The Post’s View: Virginia has the chance to become a national leader on climate policy

Mary S. Booth and Seth Heald: A hole in Virginia’s climate plan

The Post’s View: Thankfully, Virginia and D.C. are taking climate policy into their own hands