Climate protections are at risk in the 2023 Virginia legislative elections
Virginia Republicans want to decimate laws promoting clean energy and curbing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.
Virginia enacted climate protection and clean energy legislation between 2020 and 2021 under the leadership of Democratic lawmakers and a Democratic governor. Now, with a Republican governor and a GOP majority in the House of Delegates, and with all 100 seats in the House and all 40 Senate seats to be determined by this November’s election, the fate of that legislation and the impact on climate and environmental policy could be huge.
Climate change is already significantly affecting Virginia, especially its islands and areas along the Atlantic Ocean. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the sea level in coastal Virginia has risen more than 14 inches since 1930, the highest relative increase on the Atlantic coast. “The Hampton Roads region is particularly at risk because, in addition to rising seas, the land is also sinking,” the foundation website says.
For many Virginians living in coastal communities, the ramifications of a changing climate include frequent flooding and increasingly heavy storms. Residents of island towns like Chincoteague find their communities’ land disappearing more each year.
Brennan Gilmore, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Clean Virginia, told the American Independent Foundation that the commonwealth was in bad shape when it came to clean energy prior to 2020:
“We were a state that was very far behind on the transition to renewable energies. North Carolina had six to eight times the installed solar panels. We had no wind resources to speak of, no renewable portfolio standard,” he said, adding that the state’s main power utility, Dominion Energy, was ranked among the nation’s least energy-efficient in 2020.
In 2020, they passed and Gov. Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which established strict environmental goals for energy utility companies. Gilmore framed the law as meaningful progress:
A lot of this changed with landmark legislation, the VCEA, which passed that year, Virginia Clean Economy Act, which set a renewable portfolio standard, which lowered some of the barriers that existed to the deployment of renewable energy and resources, and set some somewhat ambitious goals on energy efficiency for the coming years. So there was a substantial shift, and Virginia is now one of the leaders among Southern states on a transition to a clean energy economy.
Tim Cywinski, a spokesperson for the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, pointed to the Virginia Clean Economy Act and two other climate laws signed by Northam in 2020 and 2021 as major progress.
One, the Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, added Virginia to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a coordinated effort by Eastern states to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power generation. “We had passed the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative into law, which puts limits on climate pollution in place, while also making polluters pay for the destruction that they caused while investing that money back into our communities,” Cywinski said.
Another established tighter clean car standards by requiring a move to low-emissions and zero-emissions vehicles starting in 2025.
“Virginia was way behind, and then it quickly became the leader of the pack in a lot of different ways, when the political calculus allowed us to do so,” Cywinski recalled.
All three laws passed with nearly every Democratic legislator voting in favor and close to every Republican voting against.
Cywinski said that the election of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2021 brought progress to a halt: “Gov. Younkgin is the most anti-climate governor Virginia has seen in recent memory. Essentially all of the sweeping legislation that positions Virginia as a leader on climate action, Gov. Youngkin is against.”
Republicans also gained a 52-48 majority in the House of Delegates in that election.
Youngkin and his legislative allies then tried to roll back clean energy rules and to pull out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. These efforts died in the Senate, which is still led by a Democratic majority of 22-18.
“So he failed, multiple times, on trying to roll back progress through the Legislature,” said Cywinski. “And a lot of that has to do with the Democratic majority in the Senate is just willing to hold the line on climate action, and they should continue to do so because it’s popular to hold polluters accountable.”
A January poll by the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University in Newport News found that 66% of Virginia voters back staying in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and 62% are in favor of the Virginia Clean Economy Act.
The Sierra Club Virginia Chapter publishes an annual Climate, Energy and Justice Legislative Scorecard evaluating how Virginia legislators have voted on energy policy and climate change legislation. Based on data in the group’s 2022 scorecard, over five years Senate Republicans voted an average of 29% of the time in ways that supported climate justice, while the Senate Democrats did so 89% of the time. The partisan divide was similarly stark in the House.
“If the Republicans have a trifecta, I think the VCEA will be repealed, clean cars will be repealed, and Virginia would leave RGGI. That’s very clearly what they tried to do this last session,” said Gilmore. “So I think we would see a rollback on all that progress that was made.”
He warned the consequences would be disastrous:
Virginia has to play its role in confronting climate change and, with the VCEA, we finally stepped up and were in the right place. If we roll back, we’re going to be back in the old days, and not only, you know, will we not be contributing responsibly to the global fight against climate change, there will continue to be both economic and health impacts on Virginians. So it would be certainly a dark day, were we to go backwards instead of continuing to accelerate the transitions.
Cywinski said, “When it comes to this election, every single point of progress that Virginia has made, when it comes to climate change, when it comes to environmental justice, is on the ballot. Every single one. And people need to vote with the urgency that that requires, I think.”
Liam Watson, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia, told the American Independent Foundation that Virginia Republicans are putting everyone at risk by not taking climate change seriously: “The fact that Glenn Youngkin and the Virginia GOP, in both the House and Senate, stand opposed to measures that would stand to significantly mitigate the impacts of climate change, I think it puts not only the health and safety of Virginians at risk, as storms become more powerful and more frequent, but it puts the national security of our entire country at risk.”
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
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