In 1986, a young lawyer and UVA grad named Rick Middleton left his job at a national environmental nonprofit in D.C. and moved to Charlottesville. With two other lawyers, a three-year grant, and a small office on the Downtown Mall, he established the first environmental advocacy organization focused on the South, determined to use the power of federal law to protect the region he loved.
Three decades later, Middleton’s Southern Environmental Law Center is home to 80 attorneys, with offices in six states. Its long list of accomplishments ranges from the protection of favorite local hikes to a landmark Supreme Court victory that prompted the largest power plant cleanup in U.S. history.
But as the SELC has grown, so have the environmental challenges we face. In the late ’80s, the science of climate change was well-established, and the federal government (along with oil companies like Exxon and Shell) was well aware of the potentially catastrophic risks. But the effects were not yet evident, and for most Americans, the “greenhouse effect” was a vague and theoretical concern, less specific than the hole in the ozone layer, less visceral than an oil spill.
Today, when the last four years have been the hottest in recorded history and hardly a month goes by without another extreme weather disaster, the global threat is much closer to home.
But like many other groups and dedicated individuals, the SELC is rising to the challenge. Over the past 12 years, the organization has been working on a strategic plan to lower carbon dioxide emissions in the region, and through a variety of legal and policy actions it’s helped reduce the area’s emissions by almost 30 percent. As we face what beloved British naturalist David Attenborough has called humanity’s greatest threat, these are the fighters we need. —Laura Longhine