Wishful thinking is a start for Virginia's climate activists
By Davis Burroughs
April 24, 2019

If you dream it, and if you believe it, then … it’s going to take a lot of hard work, persistence, coalition-building, compromise, and persuasion to see it through. That doesn’t faze proponents of a forthcoming Virginia version of the Green New Deal, a package of bold social, economic and environmental reforms, who say wishful thinking is a great place to start.

This weekend, a coalition of advocates, lawmakers, businesses, organizations, and General Assembly candidates will meet in Richmond for a two-day summit to flesh out the details of Virginia’s Green New Deal. Inspired by the national Green New Deal proposal championed by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Virginia’s nascent campaign aims to aggressively combat climate change through policies that support a more equitable society.

“It’s a new vision that lets everybody thrive,” said Denise Robbins, a communications director at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. CCAN is a grassroots, nonprofit group working in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

For Robbins and other activists in Virginia, the state-level Green New Deal is a refreshing reprieve from more oppositional proposals of the past. For the last decade, environmentalists have proposed countless bans, caps, reductions and other just-say-no approaches to the climate crisis. Most have failed.

It’s easy to get people to fight against something like opposing a pipeline or cutting down a forest, Robbins said. Building a movement around what people can work toward, on the other hand, is more challenging but (organizers hope) more rewarding.

Enthusiasm is contagious

Robbins didn’t expect Virginia’s Green New Deal to be the policy that got everyone so excited, but it did. “The more I think about it,” she said, “the more I see it’s not just this wonky energy policy, it’s a vision for a new world.” Its objectives include:

  • Transition to a clean energy economy that creates more jobs than it displaces
  • Direct significant R&D investments into renewable energy, residential and commercial energy efficiency, smart-grid technologies, and renewable job training programs
  • Clean water and air for all Virginians
  • Investments into local-scale agriculture
  • Promote social justice and equity

Taken at face value, those parameters are creating an atmosphere of enthusiasm. And “enthusiasm is contagious,” Robbins said.

“The way it’s being framed, it sends a very positive message,” said Chris Le Menestrel, who co-leads the progressive advocacy group VA Democracy Forward. He said it’s hard to argue against, “creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and a new clean economy.”

When we talk about climate, “it’s all kind of bad news,” Le Menestrel continued. And in Virginia, a coastal state, the outlook is even worse than in other parts of the country. Communications research has long established that repeated exposure to negative frames (think ice caps melting, sea-levels rising, wildfires raging, droughts, famine and dead polar bears) dampens the mood around finding solutions, especially when there’s little understanding about what solutions are on the table.

So the name, “Green New Deal” inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Great Depression-era stimulus laws, sends a “very strong signal that we really need something big … this is not a business-as-usual issue,” Le Menestrel said. And while the federal Green New Deal was dead on arrival with President Donald Trump — who denies the science of man-made climate change — standing in its way “we can make more of an impact,” with its state-level cousin, Le Menestrel said.

As with the federal bill, Virginia’s Green New Deal is short on the details. “This is a setting of priorities more than it is a setting of specific policies,” said D. Ladelle McWhorter, chair of the Virginia Organizing State Governing Board. (Virginia Organizing generally does not participate in environmental campaigns unless they have a clear human benefit.)

Broad is best, for now, McWhorter said. By starting with a values-driven approach on ideals with wide support — e.g., climate change needs solving, and those solutions should ensure everyone is equally protected and no one has to pay a disproportionate cost for what needs to be done — organizers will be able to attract a broader coalition of supporters. “And then we can hash out together what the specifics need to be,” she said.

At a minimum, the Virginia Green New Deal discussions will be an opportunity to draw connections between environmental issues that have long been addressed in a silo. “We wouldn’t be removing the tops of mountains if we didn’t need to mine fossil fuels,” McWhorter said, in reference to the environmentally destructive coal-mining process. Likewise, if we didn’t need to mine coal, we wouldn’t need to deal with alarming rates of asthma and other lung diseases in the communities where that coal is burned to make electricity. Instead of taking a piecemeal approach to these challenges, as McWhorter said had been done in the past, Virginia’s Green New Deal is an opportunity to explore holistic climate solutions.

Though there is much work to be done, organizers are excited to work together. Virginia’s Green New Deal, “gives something for people to hope for,” Robbins said.

“Climate change is going to be an election issue this fall, and we have an opportunity to elect more legislators who want to address it.”

In the 2019 General Assembly session several equally bold, but unaffiliated, climate bills received unanimous Democratic support in the House. That suggests the Virginia Green New Deal has a shot in 2020.

“We now have a lot more people in our state legislature who want to respond to climate change,” Robbins said. “Climate change is going to be an election issue this fall, and we have an opportunity to elect more legislators who want to address it.”

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