As sea waters rise, glaciers melt, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires become more frequent and intense, the need for people to adapt to a rapidly warming planet has become increasingly apparent in recent years.
The goal of Virginia’s Green New Deal, then, is less to prevent climate change than to mitigate its impacts as much as possible by reforming society so that is more equitable and sustainable in the future, according to a policy platform unveiled on Oct. 13 at a coalition fundraiser held at The Auld Shebeen Irish Pub and Restaurant in Fairfax City.
The Green New Deal Virginia legislative agenda highlights environmental measures, such as a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure and requirements for utilities to invest in solar energy, as well as economic changes, including a repeal of the Commonwealth’s right-to-work law.
“The Green New Deal is not an environmental plan,” said Del. Sam Rasoul (D-11th), who leads the coalition in the Virginia General Assembly with Del. Elizabeth Guzman (D-31st). “…The Green New Deal is an intersectionality. It is where economic, social and environmental justice intersect.”
Broadly, the Green New Deal seeks to address accumulating greenhouse gas emissions while supporting affected communities and building a new economy based on clean energy.
Different groups, including the Green Party and the progressive think tank Data for Progress, have applied the name to their proposals for fighting climate change in the past, but the current iteration of the Green New Deal was popularized by the youth-led Sunrise Movement, according to The New York Times.
Young activists with the Sunrise Movement found supporters for their 10-year plan to transition the U.S. to clean, renewable energy in Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who introduced congressional resolutions calling for a Green New Deal in their respective chambers on Feb. 7.
The House resolution was referred to a subcommittee on energy and mineral resources, while the Senate version is currently in the committee on environment and public works.
When the Virginia General Assembly convened for its 2019 session in January, Rasoul offered a joint resolution in the House of Delegates on Jan. 17 recognizing the need for a Green New Deal in Virginia that “promotes a just transition to a clean energy economy through lifting working families.”
Co-patroned by 22 other delegates, including Guzman, the resolution cited a United Nations special report published on Oct. 8 and a climate study released by the federal government on Nov. 23 as evidence of the need for urgent action and statewide mobilization to combat climate change.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year that “unprecedented” infrastructure, energy, and industry changes are needed to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050, thereby limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius and preventing the worst consequences of climate change.
A Fourth National Climate Assessment compiled by 13 federal agencies through the U.S. Global Change Research Program determined that the societal response to climate change has fallen short of “the scale needed to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.”
While Rasoul’s joint resolution committing Virginia to a Green New Deal died in the House’s commerce and labor committee on Feb. 5, efforts to build public support for legislation intended to address climate change and related issues were already underway.
Rasoul and Guzman announced on Dec. 19 that they had partnered with the Sunrise Movement, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and other advocacy groups to form a Green New Deal coalition for Virginia.
The Green New Deal Virginia Coalition says its mission is to confront the crises of climate change and inequity by creating “thousands of good jobs while addressing the climate emergency and restoring Virginia’s environment.”
With 62 participating organizations from around the state that work on issues ranging from civil rights and grassroots politics to poverty and labor rights, the coalition represents a variety of perspectives in an effort to be inclusive and capitalize on its partners’ collective advocacy power.
“What’s cool about the Green New Deal is it brings together these social justice, environmental justice, and economic justice advocates who believe that, together, we have a lot of common interests,” Rasoul said. “It’s great to see that happening here in Virginia and across the country.”
The coalition’s cohesiveness was put to the test for the first time on Apr. 27, when the Green New Deal Virginia partners assembled for a summit at the Third Street Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Richmond.
Rasoul, Guzman, and the other Green New Deal Virginia founders laid out a set of overarching policy themes and common goals when they announced the group in December, but the summit offered an opportunity for all of the coalition’s members to weigh in on those ideas.
Because they wanted to present a legislative agenda for the 2020 General Assembly session before the upcoming November elections, the coalition did not have time to delve into the “hard conversations” around issues like reparations for indigenous communities and the legacy of slavery that Green New Deal Virginia Coalition co-chair Lee Williams says she hoped to see.
Still, the summit proved useful in getting participants to agree on what they wanted Virginia’s Green New Deal to include. They then established working groups to discuss possible policy proposals for specific topics, including food and agriculture, sustainable jobs, racial and social justice, energy efficiency and renewables, and healthy air, land, and water.
The nine working groups presented more than 50 policy recommendations to the full coalition at the end of September, and members voted on what they thought should be the top policy priority for each group, resulting in the platform that Rasoul unveiled on Oct. 13 in Fairfax.
Grouped under five themes – a just and equitable plan for 100 percent renewables that leaves no one behind; clean air, water, and land for all; investments and job training in renewable energy and energy efficiency; investments in local, community agriculture; and equitable, affordable, and clean transportation systems – the Green New Deal Virginia legislative proposals are:
• Impose a moratorium on any new fossil fuel and carbon fuel infrastructure
• Remove barriers for vulnerable communities, including minority, low-income, and indigenous populations
• Incentivize land and soil health and carbon sequestration, which removes carbon from the atmosphere, through a healthy soils initiative that encourages farmers and ranchers to use climate-friendly practices and by eliminating toxic pesticides
• Require utilities to invest in community solar initiatives
• Repeal Virginia’s right-to-work law, which forbids employers from requiring workers to become a member of a labor union or organization as a condition of employment
• Protect and diversify rural economies by investing in local food farming infrastructure and supporting a state green infrastructure program
• Promote clean-fuel, zero-emission vehicles, potentially through an Advanced Clean Cars program with regulations to control emissions from passenger vehicles
• Support transit-oriented development
Virginia’s Green New Deal is currently envisioned as a three-year plan since not everything can be accomplished in one legislative session, according to Williams.
Using existing policies and programs in places like California, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., as a guide, the coalition has submitted summaries of all its proposals to the General Assembly’s legislative services division and is in the process of writing drafts of bills that to suggest to state lawmakers when they convene next year.
Virginia State Conference NAACP environmental and climate justice committee chair Karen Campblin, who chairs the Green New Deal Virginia Coalition with Williams, says the coalition sought to find a balance between idealism and realism when crafting its legislative agenda.
“We wanted it to be as aggressive and proactive but also doable,” Campblin said. “That was the main thing…Identify what those legislative pieces that needs to be changed, and how do we do it?”
Williams says Virginia is the first state to present concrete policies behind its Green New Deal, though Maine became the first to adopt legislation for establishing a statewide Green New Deal in June.
A critical care nurse who entered environmental activism as an opponent of fracking in her home state of Pennsylvania, Williams helped start the RVA Interfaith Climate Justice League and has been a vocal critic of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a natural gas project through Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina.
“All of our policies have a social justice theme so that we are cognizant this legislative session – 2020 – that we are going to make change this year that’s going to improve the lives of our coalition partners,” Williams said. “There’s no more waiting turns. We’ve got to do it now.”