Climate Change: Doing Nothing is Not an Option

Elizabeth Andrews

As one of the foremost environmental attorneys in Virginia, Elizabeth Andrews has a front-row seat for the conundrums of climate change policy. She sees the toll of flooding, fires and other human, economic and ecological impacts of a warming planet, yet she knows many people don’t believe it’s happening. She advocates for policies to slow climate pollution, while also working directly with communities to prepare for and adapt to the inevitable changes.

And although it’s arguably a globally existential threat like none the world has seen before, she’s in a unique position to know where and why the political will to address climate change falters.

On Monday, Earth Day, Andrews was the special guest speaker at the final Batten Hour for the academic year. She is the inaugural Environmental Sustainability and Resilience Practitioner Fellow at UVA’s Environmental Institute, which co-hosted her talk along with UVA’s Institute for Engagement and Negotiation.

In a conversation with Dean Ian Solomon before a packed audience in the Great Hall, Andrews reflected on her life’s work – and her hope for the future.

A passion seeded in childhood

Growing up in Northern Virginia, Andrews took long walks in the woods with her grandmother who taught her to hunt for mushrooms, and how to let wildlife be. One year, a hurricane scoured the small creek near her home. To “recover” the creek, she said, the local government bulldozed the creek bed and dumped concrete chunks to stabilize the banks.

“The crayfish never came back. The ducks never came back,” she said. “Those were profound lessons to me, how we can really help things, or really mess things up.”

She received a bachelor's degree from the College of William & Mary and law degree from American University before embarking on a career in state government, nonprofits and academia. Among her many roles over the years, she served as senior assistant attorney general and chief of the Environmental Section of the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, and water policy manager for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

During her time at UVA, Andrews has collaborated across disciplines with faculty and students, and with the Institute of Environment and Negotiation, she co-founded the Resilience Adaptation Feasibility Tool, or RAFT. Working directly with localities, the RAFT team provides guidance and technical resources to incorporate resiliency into local policies and programs. Planning for “resilience writ large,” she said, encompasses not just infrastructure like roads and power lines, but also ensuring local economies and the social fabric and well-being of communities can withstand, adapt to and rebound from the impacts of climate change.

Much of the RAFT work has focused on the Hampton Roads region, the most impacted area on the East Coast for “relative sea rise,” which accounts for both warming seas as well as sinking land. The team has begun expanding the RAFT program to mountain communities in Southwest Virginia that are experiencing more and worse flooding due partly to climate change.

Andrews has also increased her work with Indigenous communities, developing a deep appreciation for their view of the world.

“It’s humbling, as a Virginian, to work with tribes and see the repercussions of terrible decisions made over the years, when Virginia wasn’t on the right side of history,” she said. “Especially on Earth Day, it’s pretty profound to note the difference in perspective. I grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, with the Garden of Eden story, where we’re in charge of the earth. Tribes tend to see themselves more as part of nature. It’s a much more sustainable perspective.”

Asked by Dean Solomon to expand on her approach to building support among Indigenous communities, Andrews said she made it a priority to show up, keep her promises, and to listen. “These are respectful practices we should show to anyone.”

There is no time to do nothing

Climate change has been a politically charged issue for decades, with a spike in recent years mirroring the growing divisiveness over most issues in the U.S.  Andrews said there is no national climate law, no national climate preparedness fund, and no central federal agency overseeing the problem, so resiliency planning is left almost entirely up to towns, counties and cities. And for the most part, they don’t have the funding, staff or knowledge, nor often the political will, to take it on.

“Localities still think doing nothing is politically palatable. Elected officials say no one would vote for them if they say, ‘I’ll raise your taxes to address climate change.’ It’s not a real winner on the electoral scene.”

There are three myths that Andrews sees as stumbling blocks to reaching solutions: The notion that it’s tomorrow’s problem; that it’s too late to do anything; and that changing behavior is too hard.

Her responses: It’s absolutely today’s problem, and will only get worse if we don’t act; there are countless smart people working on innovative solutions, technical and otherwise; and yes, change can be hard, but we have to make some changes in how we inhabit this planet.

elizabeth andrews at batten hou

She offered her “me, three, and we” approach. Individuals can take small actions that, collectively, will add up – things like walking or biking to work if possible, eating more vegetarian options and being mindful of electricity use. Next, she suggests finding three people – friends, family members, neighbors – to share a project, like planting a shared vegetable garden. And lastly, the “we” step is to get involved at the local, state, or national level by volunteering, donating to organizations, or speaking up at government meetings.

“I’m a big believer in hope – hope is an action word, a commitment to engage and participate,” Andrews said. “I would encourage you all to think about how you want to engage – doing research, knowing what you know and taking a stand. Those are all expressions of hope.”




Garrett Hall at Sunset

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