A street sign rises above flood waters as high tide fills the street behind it in Norfolk, Va., last year. Flooding in the area is becoming more frequent. (Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post.)

A street sign rises above flood waters as high tide fills the street behind it in Norfolk, Va., last year. Flooding in the area is becoming more frequent. (Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post.)

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Virginia Needs a Green New Deal Before It’s Too Late

Opinions & Editorials / April 4, 2019

In the 1930s, our nation faced an existential threat. The Great Depression forced millions into unemployment and economic strife. Our leaders recognized the urgent need for a public investment in the future and came up with the New Deal. By establishing a social safety net, offering a huge federal jobs program and rebuilding and updating infrastructure, the New Deal reversed the course of the economy while lifting workers, businesses and communities into prosperity for decades.

Today, our state, nation and planet face a new existential threat: accelerating climate change and an economy that is woefully underprepared for the challenge. While the top U.N. scientists warn us that we have only a decade to drastically change course or face catastrophic consequences, we continue to burn dirty fossil fuels and destroy the only planet we can inhabit.

The threat of climate change is essentially a threat to public health: It threatens the health of our natural and built environment, the health of our economy and, consequently, the health of our people. In Virginia, more than 260,000 people live in areas at an elevated risk of inland flooding. More than 160,000 people in Virginia are especially vulnerable to extreme heat. In fact, a study last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council showed that climate change is already having a negative impact on the health of Virginians.

Like the Great Depression, this public health crisis requires a prescription that can rise to the enormous scale of the problem. The time is now for Virginia to coalesce around an authentically Virginian green new deal. 

A Virginian green new deal would be a plan of action to urgently and comprehensively convert our energy system to reduce carbon emissions and ensure that all Virginians have access to clean air and water for decades to come. And much more than that. It would be a promise to deliver on jobs, education, infrastructure, transportation and social justice for the communities that are left behind by our economy and are most vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate.

Those who dismiss the threat of climate change are quick to say that saving our environment will always come with unrealistic costs. Historically, when we make investments in the prosperity of our people, the return on that investment is massive. Here’s how a down payment on our future can better our economy and ensure prosperity. 

First and foremost, a green energy grid would deliver huge energy savingsfor Virginia households and businesses alike. A program to train Virginia workers in the renewable energy sector would help transition local economies that are reliant on fossil fuels while providing jobs to those struggling to make ends meet. Energy- and cost-efficient transportation, such as light rail, electric buses and accommodations for bikes and scooters, could provide Virginians the mobility needed to commute for a job while providing businesses a better-connected labor force and economy. Repairing and rebuilding our infrastructure, including roads, bridges and water systems to be resilient to the effects of climate change, would boost the productivity of our businesses while ensuring front-line communities, most of which are low-income people and people of color, are not left to deal with the aftermath of natural disaster alone. All of these actions combined would ultimately cultivate a more educated, healthier and more competitive workforce that could fully participate in a 21st-century green economy. 

The stark reality is we can choose to act now and reap the economic rewards of green efficiency or wait until the cost of inaction becomes truly insurmountable. With this proposal, Virginia has the opportunity to make major strides in eliminating poverty and ensuring prosperity in the commonwealth by confronting the roots of climate change and securing our future for the next generation. 

It’s time for a Virginian green new deal. ☐