Friday, March 1, 2024

Why Environmental Issues and Climate Change Rarely Come up in Elections

Clean energy supporters gather at the steps of the Virginia State Capitol to support sustainable environmental legislation. (Jeffrey Knight/VCU Capital News Service)

RICHMOND — Environment concerns rank low among surveyed voters and candidate platforms, despite the fact that climate change will impact Virginia citizens, and that two of the largest campaign contributors are very different energy lobby groups.

Environmental policy is still an important topic to Virginia voters, according to Lee Francis, deputy director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters. He has been with the organization since 2015.

“Virginians, and a clear majority of Virginians, support efforts that the state is doing to address climate change [and] to expand clean energy,” Francis said.

Voter concern does not always show up in a poll.

“When you ask what a person’s top issue during an election is, the environment’s usually No. 5,” Francis said. “That doesn’t mean voters don’t support environmental policy but when you’re talking about the economy and health care and things like that, that is what usually breaks through.”

The Republican Party has shifted away from environmental issues and conservation, according to Francis.

“There have been past election cycles where Virginia LCV has worked to elect Republicans, has run programs to elect Republicans, has endorsed Republicans,” Francis said. “This cycle, not a single Republican would even go through our interview process to be considered for an endorsement.”

Cultural issues have drowned out environmental issues in the 2023 Virginia General Assembly election, according to Francis.

“It is a noisy election cycle,” Francis said.

Candidates campaign on issues that can often be different than the sources of their campaign donations, according to Alex Keena, associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“Campaigns have focused on these cultural wedge issues but if you actually look at the money, all of the money is coming from Dominion Energy and Clean Virginia,” Keena said. “This election is really about the future of how we use power … clean energy versus fossil fuels, and that’s really what’s at stake.”

Aside from Republican and Democratic political action committees, Clean Virginia Fund and Dominion Energy rank as top donors in 2023, funneling over $23 million combined into the statehouse races. Dominion Energy donations are mostly split between both parties, and Clean Virginia mostly donated to Democrats, though not exclusively.

Traditionally, climate change discussion has been inconsistent during election cycles. It was discussed heavily — apace with the economy, health care and immigration — in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. It was less of a pressing issue for campaigns in the 2016 race, according to the Brookings Institution.

While climate change remains one of the 10 most important issues to voters, the amount of voters who consider it the most important issue decreased by four percentage points from December 2022 to February 2023, according to a Roanoke College poll. The poll’s survey size was 680 adults, and had a margin of error of 4.23%.

Key issues for the Virginia League of Conservation Voters include clean water, air pollution, land conservation, energy use and offshore drilling.

Climate change has and will impact Virginia through rising seas and retreating shores, warming temperatures that affect people and agriculture, vulnerable infrastructure, and overall human health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Previous legislation

Democrats passed several key environmental bills after they won the General Assembly in 2019. For a two-year period, the statehouse and governorship were led by Democrats.

The Clean Economy Act passed in 2020 helped establish energy efficiency standards. The bill had some support from a few Republicans because of the jobs it created, according to Del. Rodney Willett, D-Henrico.

The Clean Energy and Community Flood Preparedness Act, also passed in 2020, entered Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap and trade program intended to reduce pollution in the state. It is known as RGGI and pronounced as “reggie.”

Virginia legislators passed a bill known as the Clean Car law in 2021, which was adopted from a California standard. It created a timeline to phase out sales of gas-powered vehicles, with a mandate that all new vehicles sold must be electric by 2035. The bill takes effect in January 2024.

Republicans, who control the House of Delegates, have spent the last two years attempting to roll back some of the environmental policies. But the General Assembly has mostly hit a legislative stalemate with Democrats in control of the Senate.

While some Republicans have opposed energy transition and pollution measures, party members have shown support for land conservation efforts and utility reform.

Youngkin bypassed state lawmakers through the State Air Pollution Control Board, which voted in favor of removing the state from RGGI. Willett called the administrative action unconstitutional.

“To repeal a law you have to do that with another law or a budget amendment, you can’t do that with administrative actions,” Willett said. “It’s just a basic constitutional principle.”

Environmental groups have filed a suit to block withdrawal from RGGI. Virginia received over $730 million since its first RGGI auction in March 2021, according to the RGGI website.

The question remains if Republicans would actually overturn some of the legislation they recently opposed, if they had complete control in the General Assembly. Or perhaps the bills were introduced in the past sessions knowing the counter legislation would not make it past the Senate.

It could be a way to show they are taking action, and it changes the conversation, according to Keena.

“It gives them something to run on,” Keena said. “It says we tried, it gives them some credit claiming opportunities.”

Voters should consider environmental policy on Election Day, Francis said.

“If folks care about the air that they breathe, they care about having safe clean water to drink, if they care about being able to access green spaces in their communities and get outside and enjoy nature, then they need to pay attention,” Francis said.

Francis also highlighted the importance of contacting lawmakers, and simply getting involved with environmental efforts.

Virginia offers same-day registration at polling locations for anyone who missed the earlier deadline. Election Day is Nov. 7, and polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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