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#BeLikeGreta: Taking the Climate Emergency to Our State and Local Public Officials in Virginia

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by Glen Besa

In 2018, a lone Swedish girl, 15 years of age, exhibited her frustration at the inaction on the ongoing climate emergency by going on strike from her classes and sitting outside the Swedish Parliament. Greta Thunberg and other students like her have taken their anger and climate anxiety to the streets, to the United Nations and to numerous chambers of government around the world. By their actions, they have elevated our awareness of the #ClimateEmergency and the urgent need to #ActOnClimate.

But, the young people can’t do it by themselves. Greta’s harsh assessment of political leaders who fail to lead on climate is both accurate and evident – from the halls of Congress to our state houses, our city councils and county boards.  In some cases, modest steps are taken, although not commensurate with the crisis at hand. In most other cases, the climate emergency elicits empty rhetoric – or even derisive dismissal of climate concerns. 

In Virginia, our new Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, would actually withdraw the Commonwealth from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) and would gut elements of the Virginia Clean Economy Act (VCEA). The Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates seems poised to go along with the governor, while they offer no other approaches to addressing the climate emergency we find ourselves confronting. In the US Congress, mostly thanks to Republicans (and also to Sen. Joe Manchin from coal-producing West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema from Arizona, both of whom have refused to support reform of the 60-vote filibuster), important measures to reduce GHGs have already been stripped from the Build Back Better Act that is still on hold.  At the local government level, the issue of climate change is seldom even considered. 

All of which means that it is up to us to change that. It is up to us to #BeLikeGreta.

Just as Greta Thunberg sat alone in protest that first day, then went on to start the Students Strike for Climate and Fridays for Future movement, we can — we must! — alone or with a few friends, start calling on, start demanding that our elected leaders at all levels of government take bold actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable energy.  

In regions like Hampton Roads, many officials are willing to discuss adaptation measures to rising seas — but not the root cause, namely human-induced climate change, and what we need to do about it.  Sadly, there are still many elected officials (mostly Republicans, but also some Democrats) who are far too willing to encourage greater reliance on natural gas, which emits both carbon dioxide and methane, despite the clear-and-compelling science that informs us that we must be reducing our reliance on all fossil fuels by about half by 2030.      

Get out there and do something. As Greta Thunberg demonstrates, taking action can be as simple as making a sign and standing or sitting outside your city hall, your county courthouse, your state legislator’s or your Congressmember’s office. When does your city council or county board meet?  Show up early and stand outside the entrance with a sign declaring a climate emergency and sounding the alarm.  Very often a reporter covers these meetings. Don’t be afraid to talk to them and tell them why you’re there.  Better yet, most meetings have an open public comment period. Sign up to speak and tell your elected officials that there is a climate emergency and that they need to act to reduce greenhouse gas pollution for the sake of their own children and grandchildren. The following month, do it again.  Begin a dialog with your public officials on the climate emergency.

You don’t need to be an expert.  More than likely, you know a lot more about climate change than your elected officials, some of whom, incredibly, continue to deny its very real.  Fortunately, a majority of Americans know climate change is real and want the government to act.  The key is to raise the issue, start the dialogue and be persistent. Just last month, I visited the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors where I live and used the public comment period to inform them that there is a climate emergency and that their children and grandchildren are counting on them to act. You can do it too!

As urgent as the issue is, local governments can get started with a few simple steps, some of which may even save money.  Here are a few I’ve mentioned to my Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors:

  1. Look to other jurisdictions around the state and across the country. Lots of jurisdictions are working on the climate problem from Arlington County to Roanoke City.
  2. Get more solar on county buildings and schools; approve responsibly sited solar and wind projects in your county/city. And don’t believe anti-solar or anti-wind disinformation put out by fossil fuel interests – it’s a lie.   
  3. Revise your city/county procurement process to purchase more sustainable supplies and services.  For example, as your county retires its fossil-fuel-powered vehicles, it can add EVs (electric vehicles) to its fleet.
  4. Build all new county buildings to higher efficiency standards; the money they save on utilities will cover any added costs and, of course, reduce greenhouse gases.
  5. Consider climate impacts in land development and transportation projects; encourage developers to green their projects with community solar, trails and smart buildings. Encourage and incentivize redevelopment closer in and on “brownfields,” rather than in “greenfields” in the exurbs. 
  6. Pass a climate emergency resolution in which you outline actions your city or county plan to take. The resolution helps inform the public and businesses of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.  
  7. Push your jurisdiction to press the utility it buys power from to supply renewable energy.
  8. Reconsider the extension of gas utility lines and foster the electrification of new buildings and retrofits. 
  9. Consider environmental justice implications of all actions. In many cases, taking action to reduce greenhouse gases reduces other pollution as well, which almost always impacts communities of color disproportionately.
  10. Keep score. Direct staff to develop a greenhouse gas  inventory of local government services or for the entire county. There are models out there to help them with this. Once they have an inventory they can begin keeping score of actions that decrease or increase greenhouse gas emissions.  

Most importantly, take action and keep moving forward. This list just happens to have ten items, but there are hundreds of other actions governments can take. The key is to get started. After all, we are responding to a climate *emergency* – so sound the alarm. Your actions will inspire others and help us build a movement of climate activists. #BeLikeGreta #ActOnClimate

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