How Virginia Can Step Up To Combat Climate Change

by Eastin Johnson

May 10, 2017

Cover Letter Credits

Much is in flux on the federal level.  Few policy shifts have been as pronounced as those on energy and the environment.  Recent protests marking Trump’s first 100 days in office were in response to the administration’s tone and stance on climate change.  Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, recently stated his belief that carbon emissions were not a primary driver of global warming.  The EPA also removed most references to climate change on its website.  On policy, Trump has nixed the Clean Climate Plan and the new Congress has rolled back regulations on polluters.  While this trend on the federal level cannot continue if we hope to avert the more dire scenarios for our climatological future, we can and should look to other levels of government to compensate and take the lead.  

Many states are already well on their way to a clean-energy future.  California is one such state unwilling to wait for others to act.  The state is working to meet 33% of their energy needs with renewables by 2020 and 50% by 2030.  Hawaii aims to generate 100% of its energy with renewables by 2045.  The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a cap-and-trade agreement between northeastern and mid-Atlantic states.  Renewable portfolio standards (RPSs), which are requirements for the share of energy production generated from renewable sources, have been coming into effect to varying degrees for the last two decades.  Currently 29 states and DC have implemented some form of standards, with eight, including Virginia, making such standards voluntary.  

Virginia on the other hand is slow to step up.  Among this state’s shortcomings, our renewable portfolio standards are deceptively inadequate.  When accounting for the 2007 baseline and baseline exemptions, Virginia has an actual standard of about 7%.  This might not matter if Virginia was more aggressive on other fronts, but efficiency efforts have languished as well.  Indeed, Virginia is rated quite poorly on efficiency standards.

As Virginia enters evermore into the political season, the issue of climate change should factor into voters’ decisions.  The true stakes of inaction should be made clear in real terms and political pressure must be harnessed to bear on decision-makers.

We lack the time we are sadly spending to dither and defer and Virginia voters should be made aware of the costs and solutions to this challenge.  According to the EPA, Virginia faces an array of climate-related costs in the next century as the result of rising and acidifying seas, increased heat intensity, and more extreme weather.  As Virginia’s coastline is naturally sinking, expected sea-level rise is between 16 inches and 4 feet in the next century.  This in turn promotes saltwater intrusion, which can kill vegetation and threaten groundwater supplies.  Hotter days will result in increased health risks and raise energy demand.

While Virginia cannot solve the problem on its own, it can still move the ball forward.  Efficiency measures can benefit consumers and renewable energy investments can spur job creation and energy security for Virginia.  A more meaningful RPS could transition Virginia’s energy economy to a cleaner and more independent future.

The political tide must turn on this issue.  These solutions should garner broad appeal.  Renewable energy is quite popular regardless of party.  The same bipartisanship should be promoted on belief in and action on climate change.  Ultimately, while other arguments may be important in exerting political pressure, raising awareness of the scientific consensus and costs of climate change will be critical in pushing for more comprehensive and effective forms of greenhouse gas emissions reduction strategies.

Eastin Johnson is a 1st year MPP student at the College of William & Mary and an Associate Editor of the William & Mary Policy Review.