Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: The Impact of Local Environmental Activism

By Bryan Ricketts, Dan Sehlhorst & Thu Trinh

Climate change is often viewed as too catastrophic to comprehend, too wonky to understand, and too political to discuss. But across Virginia, many are actively combating this view by taking local action to preserve the health, security, and economy of the Commonwealth.

No matter the locale in Virginia, climate change is having an impact. Coastal islands are seeing receding shorelines, and according to Old Dominion University researchers, Hampton Roads can expect dangerous sea level rise, threatening our naval fleet and by extension, national security. Richmond has been named one of the U.S. Asthma Capitals by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and as temperatures rise, the difficulty of breathing for asthma sufferers will only be exacerbated. Those tracking severe weather found that 91 percent of Virginians live in a county impacted by a weather-related disaster in the past five years alone.

The cost of carbon on our society is daunting, burdening our emergency response funds, straining the budgets of families with members suffering from asthma, and threatening supply chains for our food and industry. It’s no wonder that Virginians have been making their voices heard to their state officials! Since June, Environment Virginia has been conducting a grassroots campaign across the state, including right here in Falls Church, where we have opened a new field office.

Many local high school and college students have served as interns, reaching out to their friends, families, and neighbors to talk about the issue. They’ve also traveled to farmers’ markets, community organizations, and public events, seeking out citizens who want to speak up in support of a better future.

But first, how did we get to this point?

It all starts with a national rule proposed last April, when President Obama unveiled the EPA’s new effort in curbing carbon pollution: The Clean Power Plan. This standard sets the first ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants under the Clean Air Act of 1970, lowering carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030. Moving forward, every state needs to determine how they will meet this goal.

Backed by wealthy out-of-state advocacy groups like the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity, some members of the Virginia legislature have repeatedly attempted to weaken or halt the development of a state plan. These have included bills blocking the Department of Environmental Quality from even researching options for a future Clean Power Plan.

On June 28, Governor McAuliffe threw his support behind the Clean Power Plan by signing an executive order creating a Work Group within the Virginia Department of Natural Resources. What they create will be a Virginia Plan that will suit the Commonwealth’s needs and current energy mix, as well as align with the federal plan.

This is where Virginia’s citizens have been making a difference. Over the course of our campaign, citizens have signed over 3,400 petitions, written 400 handwritten letters to decision makers, and penned numerous letters to the editor in local newspapers in support of a strong Clean Power Plan.
What is a strong Clean Power Plan, though? It starts with a specific cap on carbon emissions statewide, with specific targets for emission reduction. It also includes substantial improvements in efficiency in our vehicles, our energy grid, our homes, and our lifestyles. By setting up a schedule for changes in product standards and collective efforts to reduce waste, we can ensure that the market adapts to orchestrate an ordered transition.

Currently, only three percent of Virginia’s energy needs are met by wind and solar, and there is huge opportunity for growth in those industries. The wind capabilities off of the Virginia coast are expansive, with the potential to supply up to 50 percent of Virginia’s future energy needs, according to the Solutions Project directed by Stanford professor Mark Jacobson. In addition, the costs of both solar and wind are getting more and more competitive: between 2009 and 2014, the cost of solar fell by 78 percent, and the cost of wind fell by 58 percent.

With numbers like these, it is clear that a 100 percent renewable energy future is possible for Virginia. But until we find the political will to move toward these renewable energies, Virginia cannot reduce the overall output of carbon by power plants without introducing new environmental dangers.

Governor McAuliffe has a chance to stand on the side of the citizens of Virginia, leading the Commonwealth toward a strong economy, a healthy population, and a stable naval base in Norfolk. And with Virginia leading the way, other states will follow implementing Clean Power Plans of their own.

A problem too large to handle? Right here in Falls Church, and all across Virginia, committed citizens are giving the Governor the support he needs to tackle this problem head on. It’s time for us to act!

 


Bryan Ricketts, Dan Sehlhorst and Thu Trinh are campaign organizers for Environment Virginia.