General Assembly Update (6/20/11)
On June 9, 2011, I returned to Richmond for a one-day session to discuss redistricting of Congressional Districts in the Commonwealth. Two competing plans have emerged, one from the Republican-controlled House and one from the Democratic-controlled Senate. While not perfect, the Senate’s plan is superior in that it would create more competitive districts and divide fewer communities. The plan proposed by the House was written to protect incumbents and does not represent the public’s desire to draw districts that are contiguous and represent communities of interest. This will be finalized in the coming weeks as a conference committee of members of the House and Senate meet to resolve differences.
While redistricting discussions are occurring in Richmond, a debate rages in Albemarle County about sustainable growth and a $1 million grant that the City, County and University of Virginia recently obtained from HUD for joint planning initiatives. This grant would assist these groups with regional planning and is designed to measure environmental impacts in the community and to develop a single map to depict land uses in the region. The grant will also assist planners in the County with the update of the Comprehensive Plan, thereby saving taxpayer monies that would otherwise be spent from the County budget. During the grant’s implementation, recommendations for each jurisdiction are to be developed, but there is no requirement that any entity embrace any specific change in zoning, land use, or other policies.
While the goals of the grant seem reasonable, the Jefferson Area Tea Party raised concerns and caught the interest of Supervisor Ken Boyd. In May, Boyd raised questions about whether the County should participate in the grant (despite voting unanimously months earlier to support it), and suggested the County withdraw from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), claiming that the group has “infiltrated” county staff. This led to a five-hour public hearing on June 8, 2011, where words like “socialist,” “Marxist,” and “state central control” were used by various members of the public to describe the goals of the grant.
The debates over sustainability, urban planning and climate change are similar to those that occurred in Richmond last session. For example, a bill offered by Delegate Bob Marshall (HB 1721) became a vehicle for questioning the reality of climate change. The bill would have undermined the development of Urban Development Areas, a planning tool supported by many Democrats and Republicans designed to concentrate housing and infrastructure in specific areas within jurisdictions, thereby lessening sprawl, the costs of maintaining services to localities, and impacts on the environment. The concept of the Urban Development Area was introduced into the Virginia Code in 2007 through a much celebrated bill (HB 3202), initiated by House Republicans in hopes of addressing some of the Commonwealth’s transportation challenges. Marshall’s 2011 bill would have gutted the UDA legislation, and, in testimony in support of the bill, a number of climate change skeptics and conspiracy theorists argued that ideas like climate change and sustainability are part of a political agenda promoted by the United Nations and a worldwide network of people who would take away private property rights of Americans. Marshall’s bill passed the House but died in the Senate, and it is illustrative of the degree to which the deniers of climate change have entered the public debate. I previously reported on some of these debates in an earlier update.
Similar claims about the United Nations, property rights, and climate science were made during the Albemarle public hearing on the planning grant. In the view of those who argued against accepting the grant, the threat of climate change, as a human-made and highly threatening phenomenon, is at best an exaggeration and, at worst, an utter hoax. Fortunately, the County Board rejected the climate change deniers and reaffirmed its support for efforts to jointly plan with the City and University, though they voted to withdraw from ICLEI.
Allowing these claims into these local policy debates is counterproductive. There is broad scientific consensus, both in this country and around the world, that climate change is real and is enhanced by human activities. National academies of science in over 30 countries have passed resolutions supporting the view that climate change is caused by human activity. While there may be debates about how to address it and how active government should be in this arena, there is little doubt about the facts.
- In the past 100 years, the world’s temperature increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century”
- Sea levels have risen six inches during the 20th century and some models predict increases of up to 23 inches during the 21st century. If this occurs, the increase would inundate approximately 10,000 square miles of land in the US, the equivalent of the combined size of Massachusetts and Delaware.
- The oceans are growing in acidity as a result of human activity, affecting marine life and fishing economies associated with coasts.
We live in a University community where vigorous debate and discussion is supported and respect for science and scholarly inquiry is encouraged. In fact, much of our country recognizes the importance of scientific inquiry and technological advancement. My concern is that reasonable debates about the proper role of government are being undermined by distortions of the truth. It has frequently been said, “While we are all entitled to our own opinions; we are not entitled to our own facts.” It is my hope that we can return to this tradition in America, so that scientific facts can guide the development of our opinions and policies, rather than the other way around.
TOSCANO POSTSCRIPTS TO JUNE 20, 2011 UPDATE – October 17, 2011
A recent encounter with a group of citizens from the Jefferson Area Tea Party (JATP) reminded me again of why I chose public service, as well as what continues to drive me to seek the best for our region, Commonwealth, and country. The group had come to express concern about a recent posting on my website related to climate change. They took offense at some of the language that I had used, which they thought was an attempt to limit their First Amendment rights of free speech. I had not intended it that way, but upon re-reading the sentence and further reflection, I saw their point; I had written the sentence in the way that could have been easily misinterpreted. I told them that I never intended to stifle public discourse, and attempted to assure them of that.
As I told the group, there is room for all views in a public debate, and I have a special responsibility, as an elected official, to encourage that public debate, even if it may bring forth views that are contrary to my own. When I was first elected, I campaigned on being a voice for the voiceless. I initially believed that the “voiceless” were mostly the poor and disadvantaged. But during my time in office, I have been convinced that feelings of powerless are experienced by citizens from all walks of life. Many in our society feel that they have no power and are disenfranchised by the political process. In my view, the best way to counter this is by engaging all citizens in a transparent process of governance.
My encounter with this group also re-enforced my views about the importance of civility in public discourse. I continue to believe that name-calling and ideological stridency – from wherever it emanates – can distort the democratic process by discouraging citizens from participating and by undermining efforts to compromise for the common good. I continue to be suspicious of conspiracy theories and those who disregard facts that question their political agenda, the most recent version of which involves allegations that scientists are “conspiring” to distort facts related to climate change.
Politics can sometimes be messy and heated; even our founders were not immune from what we might perceive to be “dirty” and uncivil politics. But our most effective leaders have always found a way to work together to move the country forward. While we cannot legislate civility, we must encourage it at every opportunity. And while we should not stifle the sometimes shrill voices of controversy, we should strive harder for civility in our discourse and think carefully about the words we use as we make our points in the public domain.