It may not be obvious, but probably the most significant recent environmental news occurred election night in Virginia. The defeat of one of the nation's most prominent climate science deniers — Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli — in the race for Virginia governor will have wide implications for environmental policy.
Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate, should have been the odds on favorite to win the election. For more than three decades, the candidate from the party that didn't hold the White House won the Virginia governor's race. Moreover, the Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, was a deeply flawed candidate.
Environmental groups, especially the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters, went all out to defeat Cuccinelli, who was heavily financed by the fossil fuel industry and made his support for that industry a mainstay of his campaign.
Cuccinelli's record fighting efforts to address the climate crisis rank among the most extreme of any officeholder in the country. As attorney general, he sued to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the fossil fuel pollution that causes global warming, launched a two-year investigation of a leading University of Virginia climate scientist, and tried to roll back Virginia's modest program to encourage renewable energy.
He used his position to wage what has been called a "witch hunt" against University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann. Without any factual basis, Cuccinelli claimed Mann's research on the climate crisis was fraudulent. Cuccinelli's investigation was so out of line that the Virginia Supreme Court stepped in to stop him and he was strongly criticized by a Virginia judge for not having "any objective basis for his accusations."
Cuccinelli lost his federal lawsuit challenging the EPA’s power to regulate carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. A unanimous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the agency’s regulations were based on an “unambiguously correct” reading of the law.
Not surprisingly, Cuccinelli's campaign was heavily financed by the fossil fuels industry. By one account, about half of his contributions were tied to oil, gas and coal, including hefty donations from the Koch brothers.
Energy policy was a key issue in the campaign, with Cuccinelli attacking McAuliffe for his support of pollution regulations and McAuliffe running an ad focused on his opponent's denial of climate science.
Environmentalists saw an opportunity to show that taking a strong position on climate can be a winning issue, even in a coal state like Virginia. They considered this race an opening salvo for the 2014 congressional campaigns, hoping to promote the climate crisis as an important part of the debate in those contests.
Green groups helped finance McAuliffe's campaign, advertised extensively both on television and social media, mailed and called supporters to get them to the polls, and mobilized an army of volunteers. Considering the closeness of the race, their involvement probably was the difference in McAuliffe's victory.
Summing up the objective of conservationists, an environmental activist said, "Our goal is to make sure that whenever there is a stark contrast between the candidates on energy and climate change, we'll be able to play a critical role in shaping the race. People in D.C. will feel the ripple effects of this race, and we want to make sure they see being a climate denier is really bad politics.”
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as the vice president of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.