Following the wrap of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, where world leaders convened to discuss systemic reforms to combat climate change, a grass-roots summit took place virtually here in Fairfax to address local solutions to the climate crisis. 

Hosted by the non-partisan Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS), the Sixth Annual Climate Crisis Forum occurred on the evening of November 17. The event focused on the impact of climate change on youth and future generations, where panelists, including elected officials, discussed the urgency of aggressively reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.

The earth’s temperature is projected to reach or exceed 1.5°C of warming in the next two decades, according to a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report states that unless large-scale reductions in greenhouse gases are rapidly implemented, the earth is on track to warm greater than 2°C, an ecological disaster that will raise sea levels, ruin crops, and regularly unleash devastating weather.

The earth is already witnessing some of these effects: the hottest year on record was 2020, according to NASA estimates, edging out 2016 as the previous record. In the United States, 2020 also set a record for the largest number of wildfires. This past year additionally included historic rainfalls across the country and in parts of northern Virginia, causing widespread flooding and several fatalities as well as billions of dollars in damages. 

It is necessary to make many changes at the national level, but localities “are profoundly important in the transformation we need to make,” said Andrea McGimsey, executive director of FACS. Since the largest source of carbon emissions is transportation, localities can exercise their “core responsibility” of “where and how we build our communities” by designing housing, infrastructure, and other policies to minimize emissions. 

McGimsey also said that faith-based organizations can play a special role in working toward solutions for the climate crisis. “The faith community has a voice that crosses partisan lines,” she observed.

A former member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, she noted that it was not always easy to be an advocate for climate solutions in the decades that she has been doing the work. “I was very lonely,” McGimsey said. Now, she stated, “I’m starting to see changes.” A leading example is the recent passage of the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which mandates that utilities be carbon-free by 2050, among other measures. “In Virginia, we’re seeing the impacts,” she said. “Virginians get it and they want action.”

Much of that action can be advanced independently by local governments, which was noted by forum panelists and county board chairs Jeff McKay, Ann Wheeler, and Matt de Ferranti of Fairfax, Prince William, and Arlington, respectively. 

“If you compare our environmental strategies in Fairfax County from just two years ago to where we are today, it literally is the difference between night and day,” McKay said at the forum. He referenced measures like the county’s Community-wide Energy and Climate Action Plan, or CECAP, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors this year to put the county on a path to carbon neutrality by 2050.

The initiatives were welcomed by other attendees, who emphasized that bold action is essential. “Climate change is the overarching issue that affects everything,” said Nate Bellinger, a speaker at the climate forum and a senior staff attorney with Our Children’s Trust, a nonprofit legal group that litigates on behalf of youth to secure a better climate. “We don’t have time for incrementalist measures anymore.”

In Juliana v. United States, Our Children’s Trust filed a lawsuit on behalf of several youth plaintiffs in 2015, arguing that current levels of carbon emissions violate the constitutional rights of young people to live on a stable planet. The case suffered a setback after a federal appellate court ruled that remedies the plaintiffs were seeking would be more appropriately addressed by the legislative and executive branches, prompting lawyers to amend their legal complaint. 

“We are hopeful that as our amended complaint moves forward, we will be able to get at least declaratory relief,” Bellinger said, where a court would formally recognize that present rates of carbon emissions are unconstitutional. “We are going to fight every step of the way to hold our government accountable and require them to protect the future of today’s youth.”

Layla Hasanzadah, a student at James Madison High School and a panelist at the forum, noted that “youth are going to be severely impacted” by climate change and will have to “clean up any messes that are made.” She underscored that the cost of refusing to draw down carbon emissions far outweighs the price tag for green investments. “If you’re complaining about taxpayer dollars now, just wait for the amount of money we’ll have to spend in a few years,” she said.

“We’re not really part of the equation,” Hasanzadah added, referring to how young people are often excluded from conversations on climate policies. “We can say things, but not much comes of it. Kids like me are very serious about it. We do know the facts, we are concerned, justifiably.”

The two said that taking on the climate crisis that is already well underway is daunting, but there is no other choice but to fight for a better future. “I’m terrified. But I do have hope,” Hasanzadah said. “The education is there, people are slowly coming around to the fact that this is an imminent thing.” 

“There are solutions out there. I refuse to give in to pessimism and feelings of fatalism because that wouldn’t be productive for me or the youth I work with,” Bellinger said. “I’m scared and I’m worried, but I see a lot of optimism and reasons to be hopeful as well.”

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