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Virginia’s Gubernatorial Election is Being Fought on the Climate Battleground, and Fossil-Fuel-Funded, Science-Denying Glenn Youngkin Is Definitely Not the Way to Go

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by Kevin Cianfarini, who is a resident of Richmond and a volunteer climate change policy advocate with Climate Changemakers, Citizens Climate Lobby, and RVA Green 2050. 

Much like the global climate crisis, the Virginia gubernatorial race is heating up quickly. With just over two weeks until election day, polls are showing Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe leading Republican Glenn Youngkin by an average of just 2.9 percentage points – too close for comfort. 

The fact that Younkin’s so close in the polls might have something to do with the flood of fossil fuel funding coming his way in recent weeks.

According to data provided by the Virginia Public Access Project, Youngkin has amassed $35 million in total funding since January. While substantially self funded, Youngkin also received a staggering $18 million from outside his own pocket. Finance reporting shows that the fossil fuel industry has a tight grip on Youngkin’s balance sheet. Aside from Youngkin himself and the Republican Governors Association, Youngkin’s top donor at $250,000 is the chairman of the Heritage Foundation, Thomas Saunders III. For those unfamiliar, the Heritage Foundation is one of the most influential organizations spewing climate change denial and has received funding from ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, etc.

The list of worrisome campaign contributions continues: $200,000 from Richard Baxter Gilliam, founder of the coal mining company Cumberland Resources; $150,000 from Bruce Gottwald, founder of the petroleum additives company Newmarket; and $100,000 from L.E. Simmons, Chairman of the fossil fuel financing company SCF Partners. The infamous Koch Industries also has skin in the game, with a $75,000 donation through William Koch. Koch Industries, like other multinational fossil fuel conglomerates, regularly derails attempts to pass humanity-saving greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

In contrast, former governor Terry McAuliffe has raised an impressive $32 million, thanks in part to a number of climate change advocacy groups. McAuliffe’s second-most prolific donor, behind the Democratic Governors Association, is Virginia’s League of Conservation Voters. This environmental advocacy group, which donated $2.2 million, is dedicated to holding elected officials accountable for their votes and actions—something that has historically been ignored by our representatives. NextGen Climate Action places fifth with $1.7 million donated.

A possible Youngkin victory should worry Virginians for two reasons:

First, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, governments have about 10 years to implement drastic emission reduction policies, or else face economic, lifestyle, and environmental catastrophe.

Second, electing Youngkin could place all of Virginia’s existing climate policies in danger. Instead, we need to chip away at the climate crisis at every level of government, from Congress to Town Council.

Public policy often follows a trend called “lock-in,” where a policy is so entrenched that it becomes self-perpetuating. In her book Short Circuiting Policy, Dr. Leah Stokes explains how utilities and fossil fuel companies engineer “policy retrenchment,” the act of weakening or reversing policy, despite lock-in. Through multiple case studies in Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and Ohio, Dr. Stokes uncovers how fossil fuel interest groups achieve clean energy policy retrenchment through lobbying and campaign donations.

Unless Virginia is somehow immune to similar policy retrenchment, we can expect a Youngkin agenda, indebted to a myriad of fossil fuel interests, to roll back the numerous climate policies implemented over the last decade. Virginia’s recently-enacted clean electricity standard, which requires Dominion and Appalachian Power to produce 100 percent emissions-free electricity by 2045 and 2050, respectively, is a primary target. Most climate scientists agree that clean electricity standards are a linchpin in our battle against the climate crisis.

Disregarding the fossil fuel influence polluting his balance sheets, Youngkin has also admitted his disbelief in humanity’s influence on climate change (in the most-recent gubernatorial debate, Youngkin actually claimed, “I don’t know what’s responsible for climate change”). Virginia’s hundreds of thousands of individuals that live along the coast, who are going to be among the hardest hit by global warming, deserve a governor that takes the risk to their livelihoods seriously.

Again, while McAuliffe currently holds the lead, the gubernatorial race is looking close. Luckily, voting in Virginia is easy and quick! Early voting locations recently opened up, and most have no line. I cast my in-person vote in minutes. If finding time to physically vote is difficult, you have until October 22 to request an absentee ballot.

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