Activists from a group called Extinction Rebellion demonstrated around Capitol Square on the opening day of the 2020 legislative session in support of a Green New Deal. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Chris Wiegard

As we enter a new decade, Virginians are witnessing public concern about climate change rising along with the temperatures, sea levels and extreme weather events. But, while the Virginia General Assembly will take some steps toward climate solutions in 2020, the United States government will not.

General Assembly efforts will help build pressure for Congress to step up. Obstacles to climate solutions on the national level have to do with politics, economics and public will, but they can — and must — be overcome.

We have seen for decades that the road to durable climate solutions runs through Congress, because executive orders are often reversed and state efforts lack scale. That road is currently blocked by the Senate majority leader and the president, who have both repeatedly signaled opposition to any form of climate legislation.

Several bills designed to cut carbon emissions, like H. R. 763, the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, are gaining momentum in the House of Representatives, but have not yet been voted up to the Senate.

A key aspect of design for climate legislation is economic. Climate change is no longer a matter of scientific research, but rather a challenge of transitioning to renewables while preserving the complex energy and transportation systems that undergird the Virginia economy.

All the renewable energy technologies needed exist, and we know how to use them; however, these technologies are not fully deployed because financial advantages still lie mostly on the fossil fuel side of the equation (with the exception of coal) due to unrealistic pricing. Fossil fuel prices are so low because they don’t include the damages inflicted on present and future generations, but our human tendencies toward bargain-seeking are difficult to change.

Economics is also a driving factor in public will for climate solutions. The most effective political weapon in the arsenal of fossil fuels has been, and will continue to be, the threat that renewable energy might be more costly for consumers than fossil fuels in the short term. While exaggerated, this argument has an impact: the majority of voters who are concerned about climate change tend to lose supporters when energy bills are mentioned. This breakdown involves not just electricity production, but also transportation.

Unfortunately, many Virginians lack the financial resources to make personal commitments to carbon-free living. A federal fee-and-dividend approach to carbon pricing could finesse this issue by giving the money back to citizens. It is essential, in addition to whatever good climate intentions we have as individuals, to push money from the fossil fuel side of the market equation to the survival side of the equation where it belongs. 

The basic requirement for lawmakers to support any measure is for them to feel political will backing them. Bipartisanship provides durability, expanding the army of voters needed to be there when lawmakers look back over their shoulders. Some of the legislative measures in the Virginia General Assembly this year, such as those removing barriers to rooftop solar, could lay a foundation for the kind of bipartisan support that is needed for climate action in Congress.

On the federal level, climate efforts today resemble constructing a basement while a partisan hurricane rages above ground, but it is well worth the effort. 2021 could bring an opportunity for national climate solutions if voters demand them.

We can sometimes be fooled by small steps and by zero-carbon promises into thinking that we are on the road to climate survival for our grandchildren. We are not. Our effort to make serious cuts to carbon is currently motionless because it is perfectly balanced on a fulcrum between impetus and resistance.

Our new decade begins with the lost homes, animals and human lives of the horrifying Australian wildfires and more human lives lost in torrential floods in Jakarta. Such news has driven the portion of Americans who want Congress to do more to address climate to 63%, according to Yale Climate Communications. Political battles will take place both on the state and federal levels, and meaningful victories on the federal level will come as younger conservative voters continue to move towards action.

The voice of every citizen is essential to this process. 

Chris Wiegard is the Virginia co-coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby. He lives in Chester.