McAuliffe Climate Change Commission Playing for Small Stakes

climate_changeby James A. Bacon

In December 2008, Governor Tim Kaine’s climate change commission issued a detailed action plan. In 2009, Bob McDonnell was elected governor, and work on anything remotely connected to climate change promptly ended. In January 2014 Governor Terry McAuliffe took office, and he set up a new commission to review and update the Kaine plan. What can we expect from this latest initiative?

Judging from the proceedings of a meeting of the Climate Change and Resiliency Update Commission yesterday at the University of Richmond, nothing breathtaking is likely to emerge from this group. Part of the reason is that the Obama administration’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would radically restructure Virginia’s electric power industry for the purpose of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions, is so massive that everything else seems small by comparison.

But the other reason for expecting only tweaks to existing policy is that McAuliffe set politically realistic goals. McAuliffe understands that multimillion-dollar spending or regulatory initiatives to combat climate change will be still-born in the Republican dominated General Assembly. So, he has charged the Commission to develop recommendations that can be implemented either through executive action or in partnership with private groups. And it’s quickly becoming obvious that only so much can be accomplished this way.

The small-bore nature of the proposals under discussion became evident from preliminary reports of working-group chairs.  The education/outreach work group, for instance, suggested building a website to function as a authoritative clearinghouse for Virginia-related climate change and resilience information. Of course, that can happen only if resources can be found within an already over-stretched state workforce to build and curate it. Another work group is trying to identify data sources on everything from sea-level rise to the carbon sequestration capacity of Virginia forests for use in intelligent decision making. It’s not clear yet how much of this data even exists.

The public-funding work group seeks ways to leverage limited public funds with private dollars. “We don’t have a printing press here in Virginia,” quipped Walton Shepherd with the NRDC. His group is looking for opportunities to create public-private partnerships, to create “resiliency bonds” for infrastructure-hardening improvements, or to find a clever way that the up-front cost of flood-proofing improvements, such as elevating houses, can  be paid for through lower flood insurance rates. This group is thinking creatively, but it’s not clear whether it can come up with anything tangible.

The energy work group is wrestling with some of the biggest issues, like how to promote cogeneration (which utilizes waste heat) and microgrids (which better accommodate small-scale renewable energy sources). Not only would such recommendations likely require General Assembly action, however, it may be difficult to obtain consensus within the work group. As an example of the potential friction within the commission, an individual representing Virginia’s electric co-ops questioned the blithe assertion of another commission member that a warming climate will increase the frequency and severity of storms. Contrary to predictions, the incidence of hurricanes along the U.S. Atlantic coast actually has declined in recent years.

More to the point, it is difficult to see how a commission that meets episodically over one year can master an incredibly complex suite of issues and develop solutions that meet McAuliffe’s political criteria. As Jagadish Shukla, with the Institute of Global Environment and Society at George Mason University, said at one point, the commission needs more time. “Two hour meetings don’t do justice to these problems.”

— JAB

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4 responses to “McAuliffe Climate Change Commission Playing for Small Stakes

  1. It’s an achievement just to get the Commission going again. You do what is possible. Climate change is a disaster that will not be evident for most people for many years and in our political system planning and changes for an event that we don’t experience immediately won’t happen. The coal companies represent present monied interests – restrictions on them are real in a way rising waters future famines and future loss of species aren’t. You don’t have the EPA without a burning Cuyahoga River, a polluted Potomac, or smoggy sunsets.

  2. “More to the point, it is difficult to see how a commission that meets episodically over one year can master an incredibly complex suite of issues and develop solutions that meet McAuliffe’s political criteria.”

    Good thing we have a part time legislature that meets for a month or two per year and gets paid minimum wage + anything they can steal. Oh yeah – and a one term governor and local government that can’t decide how long they can let the grass grow in the median strips without asking the Nannies in Richmond for permission.

    There is absolutely no chance that anything will happen with regard to climate change in Virginia other than by federal mandate.

    I am always mystified by conservative thinking. They love to enfeeble our state and local governments to the extent they are utterly worthless (other than for entertainment value). Then, the conservatives complain about federal over-reach. The antidote to federal over-reach is competent state and local government – neither of which we have.

  3. Even climate skeptics must admit sea levels are rising, which possibly is a natural event, and Virginia shore land is subsiding, so there is adaptation work to be done. Also, even if EPA CPP (not yet finalized) takes charge of reducing CO2, it attempts to give states much flexibility in how we reduce CO2 (eg; off-shore wind vs. nukes) many choices to be made. The unique thing about CPP is it give states control of their boundaries, which is a new idea.

  4. The Metropolitan Council of Government’s Working Group on Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reductions has indicated that most steps to reduce greenhouse gases are not cost effective alone. I attended a meeting where the staff stated as such.

    But when coupled with other goals, greenhouse gas emission steps can be cost-effective. The example often given is reducing carbon monoxide from motor vehicles by better timing of signal lights. Keeping traffic moving produces fewer carbon emissions; improves the quality of life; reduces driver tension; and can create broader support for strategies that reduce greenhouse gases without bringing on the political fights. I think this is a good approach, probably consistent with what McAuliffe is thinking.

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