Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran spent three hours on Apr. 2 jammed in traffic on I-95. When he finally arrived at the Unity of Fairfax Church in Oakton around 1:30 p.m., he mentioned the infamous Northern Virginia traffic as an explanation for his tardiness to a crowd of local churchgoers and activists gathered inside the house of worship. The irony of Moran’s traffic problems was not lost on him, given that he was speaking at a conference titled “Working Faithfully with our Leaders on Climate Solutions.”
Organized by the Fairfax County-based Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions (FACS), the summit brought state and local government officials together with community members and activists to discuss what the county and state are doing, and what more needs to be done, to address climate change.
“This is a community challenge. It’s a community responsibility,” Pat Hynes, chairman of the Fairfax County school board and Hunter Mill district representative, said. “It is our responsibility and our collective opportunity to make a difference in turning that corner on climate change.”
Hynes and Moran joined Fairfax County Dranesville Supervisor John Foust as the three speakers invited to host a panel centered on initiatives that the county and state have taken to combat issues related to climate change, such as rising sea levels and high carbon emissions.
An August 2014 report by the Center for Sea Level Rise projected that Virginia will see sea levels rise by at least 1.5 feet in the next 20 to 50 years, putting 400,000 homes in the state at risk of flooding.
Hampton Roads faces the greatest danger, boasting 1.7 million residents and ranking as the second-most vulnerable area in the country when it comes to rising seas. The only region considered more vulnerable is New Orleans, La.
The report also noted that, with asthma already affecting around 163,000 children and 554,000 adults in Virginia, health concerns related to poor air quality will only worsen as global temperatures continue to rise.
Though there continues to be some debate over whether climate change is the result of human activities, the consensus at the Apr. 2 summit was that humans must act now and become part of the solution, regardless of whether or not they were the cause.
“Climate change is the largest challenge our world faces, and to solve it, we’ve got to start at a local level,” Foust said. “We know what a lot of those solutions are. We just need people and the county government and others to implement those solutions.”
Among those solutions – or, more accurately, the first step toward a potential solution – is the creation of an energy dashboard that tracks the amount of energy, including electricity and natural gas, used by all Fairfax County buildings.
Currently online under energy data on the county’s website, the first phase of the dashboard discloses historical data that the county has been tracking since 2006. The second phase of the project will let people compare energy usage across different categories (for example, libraries could be compared to government offices), and the third and final phase will include up-to-date data on individual buildings.
The development of an energy dashboard for Fairfax County, which now follows in the footsteps of Washington, D.C., and Arlington Public Schools, constituted the first part of FACS’s 2015-16 action plan, and summit attendees applauded Foust’s announcement.
“Until now, the information on that energy use has been opaque,” FACS executive director Rebecca Elliott said. “We can start to continue this really effective advocacy work we’ve done to make the information public by encouraging the county to act on the information.”
An interfaith group that includes Christians, Muslim, Buddhists, Hindus and people who follow other faiths, FACS partners with the D.C., Maryland and Virginia branch of Interfaith Power and Light to encourage religious communities to get involved in climate change and environmental work.
This was the third time FACS held a summit for members to meet with government leaders, and it was scheduled as part of a statewide Virginia Day of Action to Cut Carbon, which activists used to urge Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe to continue supporting President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
Proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2014 and finalized by Obama on Aug. 3, 2015, the Clean Power Plan would mark the first time that the U.S. has set limits on carbon dioxide emissions by power plants.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, power plants are the country’s biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and in Virginia, they generated 40 percent of the electricity used by the state in 2014, compared to only 2.8 percent from renewable sources.
McAuliffe announced in December that state office buildings will be required to generate 8 percent of its energy from solar sources in the next three years.
“You might not think 8 percent is a whole lot…but when you consider that we’re only now using 2 megawatts, which is a fraction of one percent, 8 percent over the next three years is a lot, so it’s an ambitious goal and one that we certainly intend to meet,” Moran said, adding that Eastern Shore will soon feature a new solar installation.
McAuliffe appointed Moran as Virginia’s first chief resiliency officer in 2014. He says that his duties as resiliency officer and as public safety and homeland security secretary complement each other, given the potential threats that climate change could pose to communities and national interests.
For instance, Hampton Roads serves as a military center of sorts for Virginia, and Norfolk hosts the world’s largest naval base. Rising sea levels also threaten many towns that lie along the coast or in proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River, including the City of Alexandria.
“We need to start responding,” Moran said. “We need to start adapting, and we need to make sure that Virginia is a resilient state and we have resilient communities.”
On a local level, Foust says that Fairfax County is working to reduce its carbon footprint, support transit-oriented development that emphasizes mixed-use communities and public transportation over commuting, and reduce the amount of sediment in the Chesapeake Bay as part of ongoing stream restoration projects.
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) are also heavily involved in the county’s efforts to improve the environment through the system’s Get2Green movement, which involves students in project-based learning around environmental challenges.
Get2Green is part of the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools program, which promotes the application of sustainability principles in school management and curriculum. FCPS has 80 registered Eco-Schools with 12 of them earning Green Flags, the highest possible ranking.
However, the school system still has significant work to do in becoming environmentally friendly, particularly where renewable energy use is concerned.
Hynes attributes the difficulties that FCPS has faced in converting to renewable energy sources to a lack of funding and other resources.
“We can’t really risk any of those capital dollars, because they’re so tight right now,” the school board representative said.
Despite the numerous obstacles that exist to combating climate change, Elliott says that progress is being made, and as shown by FACS, communities of faith have been – and will hopefully continue to be – a significant force for change.
“As people of faith, we understand that humans hurt from climate change, that families are hurting,” Elliott said. “We bring a moral voice to the table, and I think it’s important to note as well that when faith communities work together, we’re able to make a difference.”