I immediately thought of Tuere Brown when President Obama unveiled his big climate change initiative, the Clean Power Plan. Brown, a 36-year-old teacher in Norfolk, is one of hundreds of thousands of coastal Virginians who live with the potentially deadly consequences of sea-level rise almost daily.
Last year, after a bad storm, flooding became so severe around Brown’s elementary school that she had to evacuate several students herself, using her car as an emergency vehicle. But floodwaters soon overtook her car on a nearby street and she had to carry the traumatized children on her back, one by one, through roiling waist-high water, to high ground.
“This is life in Norfolk these days,” Brown said of the flooding. “And it gets worse every year.”
Obama can rightfully claim to have created a “legacy” policy with his Clean Power Plan. Its goal is a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions — which are linked to global warming — from power plants nationwide by 2030. The White House specifically referenced rising seas as a motivation for the Clean Power Plan. But the initiative, appropriately, leaves it up to state leaders to create implementation plans that work best for each state.
Which raises the question: What will be Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) legacy on climate change? Will he and other Virginia leaders implement the president’s plan in a responsible way that not only cuts carbon but also takes concrete steps to protect Brown and her students from more flooding?
As a sign of urgency, U.S. military officials are scrambling because of rising water to elevate giant docks and piers at the massive naval base in Norfolk, the world’s largest. Simply put, McAuliffe can claim no successful legacy on climate change unless he embraces new and admittedly costly flood protection projects for the cities of Norfolk, Portsmouth and Virginia Beach and the surrounding coastal area.
Thankfully, the White House has shown the way forward. When announcing the Clean Power Plan last summer, federal officials effectively invited states such as Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. This voluntary cap-and-trade system involving nine states from Maine to Maryland has been cutting carbon emissions since 2008. During that time, these states’ economies have grown faster than the national average, and their power bills have been reduced more than the national average.
The bonus for Virginia: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative generates billions of dollars in revenue for participating states as power companies pay a modest fee for each ton of carbon they emit. Result: Virginia would soon have $200 million or more per year to invest in clean power, energy efficiency, training out-of-work coal miners and a host of flood-protection measures ranging from beach replenishment to wetlands restoration and, potentially, levee construction.
Thankfully, there’s already bipartisan support in Richmond for this idea. Del. Ron Villanueva (R-Virginia Beach) and Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) introduced the Virginia Coastal Protection Act in January. The bill, which came within one vote of passing in a Senate committee, directs Virginia to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and invest half the pollution proceeds into coastal flood-protection and adaptation measures.
Now that Obama has done his job on climate change, it’s time for McAuliffe to finish the work. The governor should work fervently with leaders of both parties to pass a bill committing Virginia to this regional cap on carbon pollution in 2016. Norfolk alone needs $1 billion to adapt to several feet of sea-level rise in coming years. There simply is no credible source for this money other than the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
The bottom line: Joining this established system from Maine to Maryland satisfies the federal carbon rule while offering the best chance to protect Brown and her students from the threat of drowning tragically right outside their classrooms.
Now that’s a policy legacy — and moral obligation — that McAuliffe simply cannot ignore.
The writer is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network.