Climate Groups Hope Virginia's Rapidly Rising Sea Levels Will Motivate Young Voters

Millions of Virginians are threatened by sea level rise, and climate change groups are working hard to elect Democrats who will combat the issue.

In southeast Virginia, the effects of climate change are impossible to ignore. The sea level in Virginia Beach is rising faster than in any other city on the East Coast, and Norfolk’s naval station is at constant risk of flooding, something military officials have called an impending national security disaster.

Progressive groups are hoping climate change will be a major motivator in Tuesday’s elections in Virginia. Climate-focused organizations have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into grassroots efforts to get young people, who are more likely to prioritize climate change at the polls, registered to vote. Virginia will provide a test case of whether that strategy works.

The focus on climate change is part of an extensive — and expensive — effort to cement Virginia as a blue state after Democrats nearly took hold of both the state Senate and House of Delegates in 2017. There could be far-reaching ramifications at the national level: If the state’s Democrats can secure a hold over all three branches of the government, they’ll oversee the post-census redistricting process and redraw the state’s racially gerrymandered maps.

Democratic successes could also ensure that Virginia take a more proactive approach to combating climate change, like joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state cooperative that funds legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which state Republicans have voted against.

But some members of the state’s GOP do take the threat of climate change seriously. Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer, a Republican, joined the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy in 2017 after research showed it would cost up to $4 billion to plan for sea level rise in the community.

“It was an eye-opener,” Dyer said. “And it shows a clear direction that we have to take.”

But most Republican lawmakers in the state aren’t convinced. Along with opposing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Virginia Republicans have referred to climate change as a ”left wing term and have missed key votes on flood prevention and climate change mitigation.

Progressives hope to use that against Republicans to motivate young voters, who are a crucial voting bloc for Democrats, particularly in a close election. In the 2017 election in Virginia, several races were decided by 1,000 votes or less.

“We know that young people are going to make the difference in this election,” Adin Lenchner, deputy states director of NextGen, a grassroots organization that encourages young people to get involved in progressive politics, told HuffPost.

Climate is “the core” of NextGen’s efforts to engage with young voters, Lenchner said. NextGen has donated over $100,000 to Democratic candidates in Virginia this election cycle. The group has registered more than 2,000 students this election cycle, and collected pledges to vote from 2,500 students ― all in the coastal Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

NextGen isn’t the only climate change group invested in the Virginia election. Clean Virginia, a political action committee run by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Perriello and funded largely by millionaire Michael Bills, is investing in and endorsing candidates who pledge to refuse donations from Dominion Energy, the state’s powerful electric utility company.

Bills has personally donated more than $1 million to Democratic candidates and Clean Virginia has pledged to donate thousands to every candidate who refuses donations from Dominion.

One of those candidates is Cheryl Turpin, an environmental science teacher who was elected to the House of Delegates in 2017. This time around, she’s running for a seat in the state Senate.

When state Republicans voted in support of a bill that bars the state from participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Turpin called out the GOP for failing to treat climate change as the serious issue that it is. She has received $100,000 from Bills, $15,000 from NextGen and $95,000 from the state’s League of Conservation Voters. Altogether she has raised close to $1 million more than her Republican opponent, Jen Kiggans.

“Republicans have had over a decade of controlling the state assembly and they’ve taken millions of dollars of Dominion money,” Dan McNamara, Turpin’s campaign manager, told HuffPost. “Delegate Turpin and other other Democratic candidates have taken the Clean Virginia pledge where they won’t do that. They are going to make sure we put responsible legislative solutions forward, like registering into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.”

Progressive groups believe success in Virginia could be a harbinger for positive results nationwide.

“If the Hampton Roads area is this amped and ready to go … it speaks to the enthusiasm on the ground for young people around this issue,” Lenchner said. And that “sends a very strong message about the youth vote not just in Virginia but going into 2020.”

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