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How Carbon Pollution Became Political Kryptonite In Virginia’s Gubernatorial Election

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"How Carbon Pollution Became Political Kryptonite In Virginia’s Gubernatorial Election"

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Ken Cuccinelli, Terry McAuliffe

CREDIT: (AP Photo/The Washington Post, Linda Davidson, Pool)

Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli have been battling for control of Virginia’s Executive Mansion all year. It’s not often that energy and climate change play a significant role in gubernatorial races but if it’s true anywhere, it’s certainly true here. A new report on the consequences of Cuccinelli’s climate denial, brand-new polling on the race, and an interview with Climate Progress make clear that refusing to do anything about carbon pollution could be political kryptonite, while embracing alternative energy and mainstream climate science could lead to electoral success.

Cuccinelli has become famous for waging an unsuccessful witch hunt against Michael Mann, a leading climate scientist formerly of the University of Virginia. (This year, Mann campaigned with McAuliffe in Virginia.) His campaign for governor has been fueled by fossil fuel money, but his strange history with coal and gas could even backfire in conservative southwest Virginia.

McAuliffe has treaded a much more moderate line. Last week, when a reporter from NBC Washington asked him if he supported the new proposed guidelines on carbon pollution from new power plants, McAuliffe said: “I do. You bet. What I’ve looked at I support, what we need to do to protect our air and water.”

Taking basic steps to protect air, water, and human health was too much for the Cuccinelli campaign: they pounced. The campaign released an ad yesterday that focused on McAuliffe’s remarks, saying he would “side with Obama and kill Virginia coal.” But are such attacks working?

What Virginians think about climate change

A poll conducted by Politico released on Monday had McAuliffe leading Cuccinelli 44-35. A very similar proportion support EPA’s proposed new carbon regulations on new power plants: 45 percent in favor to 33 percent opposed.

In July, a George Mason University poll found that 85 percent of Virginians think climate change is happening, though many are unsure of the cause. A League of Conservation Voters poll earlier this year found that 73 percent of young voters (18-35) associated people who deny climate change with words like “ignorant,” “out-of-touch” or “crazy.” That included 53 percent of Republican respondents. 80 percent supported President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and 79 percent reported they were more likely to vote for a candidate who wanted to take action on climate change.

McAuliffe in his own words

While some environmentalists would find it difficult to call McAuliffe a “climate hawk,” he will advocate for Virginia’s clean energy sector whenever the subject comes up.

He supports Senators Kaine and Warner in pursuing offshore drilling just as much as he supports, as he told Climate Progress in an email, “the steps Governor McDonnell has taken to open up our waters for wind turbines.”

Research and innovation are important to make the state competitive in the global market, he said. Referring to Cuccinelli’s campaign against climate scientist Mann, he continued: “The key to strengthening and diversifying Virginia’s economy is to embrace research and innovation, not suing scientists whose findings you don’t agree with. The fact that UVA was forced to spend $600,000 to defend itself from its own Attorney General is outrageous and sent a chilling message to professors, scientists and researchers across the Commonwealth.”

“My opponent has always put his own rigid ideological agenda first, whether or not it is the best thing for Virginia. Statewide elected officials should always put science before ideology.”

McAuliffe, who famously got “jazzed” during the 2009 Democratic primary campaign over a chicken waste-to-energy idea (“I love chicken waste!”), has embraced concrete steps to support alternative energy:

We need to be looking to increase our use of alternative energy while continuing to support existing industries. One step that we should take is to join our neighboring states in enacting a renewable energy standard to incentivize businesses to invest in new forms of energy. This can be a boon to the economy as well as helping to keep our air and water clean. We can also promote the research thats taking place at Virginia’s Universities on everything from wave energy to solar technology.

Asked how climate change has impacted Virginia most, McAuliffe said: “While the most devastating impacts will be coming in the future, we’re already starting to see it today.” He pointed to Hampton Roads as an example: “We’re already starting to see rising waters in Hampton Roads and that region is at great risk if we don’t take steps to prepare ourselves.”

But what about coal, and the President’s new proposed carbon rules for new power plants? He said he supports the new coal power plant regulations, and clean energy innovation can start to lower carbon emissions, but what does candidate McAuliffe think about “clean coal”?

He sees it as a potential to grow jobs in his state: “We need to be investing in the great work being done at places like Virginia Tech on carbon capture technology so that our coal industry, which is such a critical part of Virginia’s economy, can continue to grow and adapt to an ever-changing marketplace.”

Climate Progress reached out to the Cuccinelli campaign for comment on these topics but did not receive a response by press time.

Cuccinelli’s views on climate change

Ken Cuccinelli’s inability to grasp the reality of basic climate science threatens Virginians’ economic livelihood to the tune of $45 billion, according to a new report from the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Excessive flooding from rising sea levels, heat waves, and warmer waters could combine to cost Virginia $45 billion and 314,000 jobs. By 2050, severe storms could threaten $129 billion of the state’s property. Past storms have proven that the threat is real: Hurricane Isabel killed 32 Virginians and cost the state $1.9 billion in damages.

The city of Norfolk, along with the nation’s largest naval base, has a front seat to what rising sea levels have in store for the rest of the planet. Norfolk is spending $6 million a year to protect itself from the worst of the invading ocean, but the cost could rise closer to a billion. Encroaching waters also threaten coastal Virginia along with its billion-dollar tourism and fishing industries.

Ken Cuccinelli does not think these are serious problems. The report makes clear that he has used the Attorney General’s office to mock mainstream climate science and go after world-renowned experts, forcing the University of Virginia to use half a million dollars that could have been used for more productive things to defend itself over a ridiculous lawsuit. This wasn’t enough, so Cuccinelli sued the EPA over its finding that carbon pollution posed a danger to human health. In 2012, the D.C. Court of Appeals found EPA to be “unambiguously correct.”

Over $800,000 from the dirty energy industry has flowed to Cuccinelli’s political coffers over the last 12 years. The report concludes: “With extreme weather already causing billions of dollars in damage and flooding washing away coastal infrastructure, Virginia is at a tipping point. As governor, Attorney General Cuccinelli would only exacerbate the current crisis by refusing to acknowledge science, which would put the lives and economic futures of millions of Virginians on the line.”

Below, an infographic from the report:

Cuccinelli Infographic
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