Kryptonite

How did things go so wrong for a conservative Republican in the coal-rich state of Virginia? Earlier this month, voters in that closely watched battleground state rejected Ken Cuccinelli’s extreme, right-wing bid for governor and dealt a serious blow to the deep-pocketed oil companies that backed his candidacy.

Of course, now is when the number-crunchers confer behind closed doors, in hushed tones, about what it all really means — for the midterms in 2014 and the primaries in 2016, for soccer moms and NASCAR dads, for women’s bodies and marriage equality, and for climate change.

I am here to tell you: A new political dynamic is emerging. Climate change is a winner, not a loser.

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli
Kate Wellington
Terry McAuliffe (left) made climate work for him in defeating Ken Cuccinelli.

To be sure, I was no bystander in this election. It’s not a secret that NextGen Climate Action, an organization I support, backed the ordinary citizens in Virginia whose voices would have otherwise been drowned out by corporate polluters. But the numbers don’t lie — our message made a difference.

This success may come as a surprise to politicians who still deny science and repeat the oil industry’s lies out of fear. It may shock pundits who make their careers out of pitting the environment against job creation. But while those people cling to an old narrative kept alive by the very industry it enriches, the rest of us are moving forward.

A recent poll found that more than 62 percent of likely voters in Virginia understand that human activity is driving climate change. This stands in sharp contrast to the views of Ken Cuccinelli, a climate change denier who used taxpayer dollars to fund a witch hunt against a leading UVA climate scientist. Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry fattened the Cuccinelli campaign war chest.

But perhaps most damaging of all, Cuccinelli alienated a pocket of deep red Republican voters in southwest Virginia when he sided with Goliath — in this case, a major energy company — over the people living there.

Virginia’s inspector general found that Cuccinelli’s office “inappropriately” aided Consol Energy — which donated more than $100,000 to his campaign — in a lawsuit against Virginia property owners over natural gas royalties. This didn’t sit well with would-be supporters like Shirley Keene, who publicly turned against him in a pivotal campaign ad. “When you help an energy company against the people that have elected you to office, that is wrong. You have let your people down,” Keene said.

A diverse group of voters on both sides of the aisle punished Cuccinelli for his backward thinking and industry ties. Instead, the victory went to Terry McAuliffe, whose campaign “marked the first time that any candidate has run an ad exclusively focused on his opponent’s denial of climate science,” according to the League of Conservation Voters. The days when all Democrats run scared from climate change are a thing of the past.

NextGen Climate Action’s quantitative analysis shows that in an election that was decided by a margin of about 56,000 votes, our coalition’s efforts made a difference. Not only did our 65,000 pledged supporters turn out to vote on Election Day, but also, roughly 11,000 disillusioned Republican voters from southwest Virginia stayed home.

Ultimately, Cuccinelli’s lies about climate change and his tangle over property rights with conservative voters served the same master — the fossil fuel industry. It’s an industry that will stop at nothing to protect its bottom line. But ordinary people in Virginia, across this country, and around the world are waking up to the true price we all pay when we ignore climate change.

Plainly put, this is a pocketbook issue. And if you don’t believe it, just take a look at what the trillion-dollar insurance industry is doing. Insurers and re-insurers — the largest industry in the world — have realized that climate change is the most significant global issue they must address. Droughts, floods, hurricanes, and other extreme weather fueled by climate change will impact the environment and our economy.

How do we measure the risk? What is the cost? The insurers aren’t the only ones who want to find out. Earlier this year, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and I launched Risky Business, a new initiative to quantify the economic risk the United States faces from the impacts of climate change.

As new efforts take hold across the country to address climate change and spread the word on the true cost of doing nothing, science deniers will continue to pay a political price. NextGen Climate Action helped give a voice to ordinary people in Virginia and will keep working to take back our elections from the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry.

Like the tobacco companies before them, corporate polluters and their political backers can be undone by science and the power of an informed citizenry.