News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

As scientists call for urgent action, Ky. lawmakers see a ‘cult of climate change’

coal miner in the hands of coal background
svet110/Getty Images/iStockphoto
coal miner in the hands of coal background

The world’s leading climate scientists say the planet is hurtling toward disaster and we have precious little time to transition away from fossil fuels. But most Kentucky Republican lawmakers express no interest in taking heed of that warning.

Greenhouse gas emissions have reached the highest levels in human history.

Scientists with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say this is our last chance to limit warming to at least 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst impacts of climate change, but it will require deep emissions cuts and a major transition in the energy sector.

To achieve it, global greenhouse gas emissions will need to peak before 2025, according to the latest IPCC report released last Monday.

“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C,” said IPCC Working Group III Co-Chair Jim Skea. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible.”

But the embers of the coal industry still burn bright in a state that owes much of its prosperity to the fossil fuel that powered the country through the industrial age.

Around 70% of the state’s electricity still comes from coal. The state’s largest utility plans to continue burning coal through 2066, and Kentucky still claims 20% of all U.S. coal mines in operation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“The coal business in my district is a thriving business still. It employs over 1,600 people in my district and it’s important to the state of Kentucky,” said Republican Sen. Robby Mills of Henderson on the Senate floor this session.

Between rising fuel and energy prices, inflation and the war in Ukraine, Kentucky Republicans see fossil fuels as a way for the state to maintain its energy independence. But beyond that, coal remains a deep part of the state’s identity, even if fewer than 4,300 coal workers are employed statewide.

Other lawmakers take it even further, like the chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, who outright denies the existence of manmade climate change — a fact for which there is unequivocal evidence.

“Unfortunately we have some people today that actually worship at the altar of the cult of climate change,” Gooch said on the House floor during this year’s legislative session.

This is the dilemma: The continued combustion of fossil fuels threatens our ways of life, but fossil fuels are intimately intertwined with Kentucky’s culture and economy. Untangling them presents its own threat — one that, for now, Kentucky Republicans see as the greater danger.

The Report

The crux of the science behind climate change is fairly straightforward: Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and fluorinated gasses trap heat in the atmosphere. The largest source of carbon dioxide comes from the combustion of fossil fuels to make electricity, power planes and automobiles, heat our homes and cook our food.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate’s latest report authored by 278 scientists from 65 countries confirms that, without doing more to cut emissions, the planet is currently on a trajectory to warm by around 3.2 degrees Celsius. That would push millions of people further into poverty, lead to food insecurity, mass migration, species extinction and spur global armed conflict.

“Major cities underwater, unprecedented heatwaves, terrifying storms, widespread water shortages, the extinction of a million species of plants and animals. And this is not fiction or exaggeration, it is what science tells us will result from our current energy policies,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres.

Ryan Van Velzer

To limit warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius, greenhouse gas emissions will not only need to peak by 2025, but drop 43% by 2030, with the planet reaching net zero by 2050.

That means the world will not only have to stop investing in fossil fuels, but will have to rapidly transition away from current fossil fuel assets… like coal-fired power plants, which Guterres specifically called for an end to in his address.

The IPCC recognizes that this transition comes at a financial cost, particularly to existing coal infrastructure. Reducing our reliance on coal in a timeline that meets climate goals will require the retirement of coal-fired power plants before the end of their useful lives. The report notes that could lead to the loss of trillions of dollars in assets.

An attack on the “friends of coal”

There is a long, storied relationship between Kentucky, a state that’s been continuously mining for more than two centuries, and that blackened bit of dead plants that keeps the lights on.

To this day, coal counties continue to receive severance payments from mines still in operation. The money funds community projects and pays down old debts. The industry has long been a force majeure in state politics, even as companies closed and overall production plummeted.

On the floor of Kentucky’s legislative chambers, lawmakers can often be seen touting their coal credentials — how they or their family members worked in the mines.

So when climate scientists say that humankind needs to stop burning coal to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, well, many Kentucky lawmakers take it personally.

The latest coal protection bill takes aim at financial firms pledging to do more to act on climate change.

More than a hundred banks around the world have committed to divesting from fossil fuel resources to combat the climate crisis as part of the Net-Zero Banking Alliance.

Sen. Mills of Henderson sponsored legislation that would require the state to divest from banks that are boycotting investments in the fossil fuel industry, though it does allow for exceptions if the agency finds it inconsistent with their fiduciary responsibilities. Both the Kentucky Coal Association and the Kentucky Oil and Gas Association endorse it.

“Senate Bill 205 makes it clear that Kentucky stands with our fossil fuels companies and Kentuckians that work hard everyday to produce these low-cost resources and power for our nation,” Mills said of the bill.

Republican Sen. Robby Mills of Henderson speaks on SB 205.
Ryan Van Velzer
Republican Sen. Robby Mills of Henderson speaks on SB 205.

Gov. Andy Beshear signed the bill into law on Friday.

Republican U.S. Congressman Andy Barr of Kentucky is pushing similar legislation at the federal level.

The new Kentucky law is likely not enough stop financial firms from divesting from the fossil fuel industry, but regardless of its efficacy, Republicans’ votes and comments on the bill are representative of a larger imperative: protecting an industry that has helped the state prosper.

That’s what Republican state Treasurer Alison Ball said in a legislative committee, that Mill’s proposal would protect “signature” Kentucky industries.

Rep. Norma Kirk-McKormick, who represents eastern Kentucky mining communities, said coal is intertwined with the identity of her community.

“I represent Martin and Pike County and the coal was our economy and it has been for many years and I take very strong offense to our coal industry and what they’ve done to our people,” she said on the House floor.

Rep. Suzanne Miles of Owensboro told her colleagues that fossil fuels have provided reliable affordable energy, but “fossil fuels are under attack.”

Even some eastern Kentucky Democratic lawmakers, like Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson, voted in favor of the bill.

“We’re facing activism infiltration where the minority is making decisions for corporate entities,” Webb said.

Rising utility rates

There’s another line of argument from lawmakers about the consequences of the energy transition in Kentucky. It goes something like this: Cheap coal electricity allowed Kentucky to prosper. It kept customer rates affordable and attracted heavy industries that use a lot of electricity.

The decline of coal has hurt utility rates in Eastern Kentucky in particular. Over the last decade, from 2008 to 2019, Kentucky Power lost more than 10,000 customers including large industrial consumers like the coal industry and AK Steel Ashland.

Kudzu grows near a coal preparation plant in eastern Kentucky.
Jeff Young
Kudzu grows near a coal preparation plant in eastern Kentucky.

The region’s decline has left the utility with fewer customers to help recover its fixed costs — maintaining electricity lines, poles, transformers and two aging coal-power plants. Those costs are then pushed onto the remaining customers. Add in some expensive environmental regulations and pass on the price of natural gas directly to customers, and you’ve got a recipe for rising utility costs.

Kentucky Power is now up for sale pending approval from the state’s regulatory commission. If the sale goes through, Liberty Utilities has pledged to reduce residential ratepayers’ bills.

Rep. Gooch said environmental regulations and other sustainability efforts are to blame for rising utility costs in the state, and doesn’t believe the energy transition will be able to provide the kind of energy stability people are used to.

“Affordability, resilience and reliability are the most important things we have to do right now,” he said. “And all of this unicorn type-fantasy world wishes that we have about what type of energy we are going to have the next 10, 15, 20 years, wishing and hoping isn’t an energy plan, it doesn’t make it so.”

Gooch is a long time climate change denier and chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which means he has a lot of power over environmental legislation in the state.

On the House floor, Gooch lamented people who “worship at the altar of the cult of climate change.” In an interview with WFPL News, he went further, saying falsely that the same scientists warning about global warming also covered up the origins of the coronavirus.

“We have people who are making decisions based on fantasy, based on not reality but emotion and we have to get away from that to be able to maintain an affordable, reliable, resilient electricity grid,” Gooch said.

Gooch is pushing a resolution to establish a legislative Ratepayer Protection Task Force that would study the impacts of the premature retirement of the state’s remaining coal-fired fleet. It would also look into ways to sell off those power plants before they become stranded assets and burden ratepayers with the costs.

Though Gooch is not a fan of President Joe Biden, they’re pretty close to agreement on that last point.

Biden’s Build Back Better plan would have included a $150 billion clean electricity program to incentivize utilities to stop burning fossil fuels and replace their generating units with wind, solar and nuclear energy.

The energy transition 

The energy transition is already underway in Kentucky. Experts say it’s unlikely that another coal-fired power plant will ever be built in the United States. Cheaper, cleaner sources of energy are simply outcompeting coal.

Advancements in solar, wind and battery technologies have cut costs by 85% since 2010, according to the IPCC report.

Reductions in the costs to build solar panels have resulted in solar becoming the “cheapest electricity in history,” according to the World Energy Outlook.

Solar panels installed at Arlie Boggs Elementary in Letcher county, KY.
Courtesy of Bluegrass Solar
Tre’ Sexton
Solar panels installed at Arlie Boggs Elementary in Letcher county, KY.

Kentucky is already reaping the benefits of the energy transition with unprecedented growth in the development of solar power plants — one of the largest of which is planned on an abandoned mine site.

Ford has promised to invest billions in central Kentucky to build next-generation batteries for electric vehicles. Toyota is adding jobs in Kentucky to boost electric vehicle manufacturing. Gov. Andy Beshear is pushing for the state to become one of the country’s hubs for hydrogen energy.

Meanwhile, Louisville has joined at least 826 others around the globe that have adopted zero-emissions targets.

Plenty of Kentuckians care deeply about climate change and its impacts. Kentucky youth have joined sit-ins congressional offices in Washington D.C. to protest a lack of climate action. Kentucky scientists are working on the next generation of solar-powered hydrogen fuels.

Ordinary citizens are demanding their elected leaders act on climate change and there are lawmakers themselves who see the energy transition as an opportunity for the state.

“Our public and our young folks are asking us to move away from fossil fuels and coal, to a cleaner form of energy to save the planet basically,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville on the House floor.

Kentucky is just one state in a country that bears more responsibility for climate change than most others. Kentucky isn’t even the largest coal producer in the U.S. anymore, but all our combustion ends up in the same atmosphere that supports life-sustaining systems for the entire planet.

There is nowhere else in our cosmic field of vision more suitable to human life than this planet. We have only this tiny vessel, catapulting through the solar system at just the right distance from the sun, on just the right axis, to make flowers blossom in springtime and light feel warm upon our faces.

Climate change is coming to Kentucky. In fact, it’s already here. But how bad it gets, and how Kentucky adapts to this reality remains in the hands of Kentuckians.

Ryan Van Velzer has told stories of people surviving floods in Thailand, record-breaking heat in Arizona and Hurricane Irma in South Florida. He has worked for The Arizona Republic, The Associated Press and The South Florida Sun Sentinel in addition to working as a travel reporter in Central America and Southeast Asia. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Ryan is happy to finally live in a city that has four seasons.
Related Content