OPED: Coal country hit by a changing climate

Jon Clark
  • West Virginia coal country has become the latest area to fall victim to extreme precipitation.
  • There is no denying that coal played a major part in the development of our country.
  • Congress can help Americans and coal industry workers by embracing a clean energy economy.
  • That new economy could create millions of jobs for workers to transition to.

The recent deluge in West Virginia has been called a “once in a thousand year event” by the National Weather Service.  At least twenty-three people were killed across the state. One video showed a house ripped off its foundation by raging flood waters while simultaneously going up in flames. According to the WV Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, at least 500 homes were damaged or severely destroyed in Roane County alone. Neighboring Greenbrier County was also hit hard, especially the small town of Rainelle, where at least 15 people died.

Volunteers Benjamin Showstahl,12, Katie Shofstahl, 14, and Eliana Shofstahl, 16, wash flood mud off of dishes in Howard Creek for a family, who is working to salvage goods from their destroyed home, Friday, July 1, 2016 in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.,Their father, David Shofstahl, traveled with children from Clifton Forge, Va. to help provide manual labor for any families in need during the post-flood clean up process.

In nearby White Sulphur Springs, the Greenbrier Resort, the site of the PGA Tour's Greenbrier Golf Classic, is buried under 3 feet of mud and littered with tires, refrigerators, trash and severed trees. Greenbrier employees came upon two bodies on the resort grounds and are searching for more. The tournament, originally scheduled for July 7-10, was expected to attract 300,000 but has been canceled. The 700-room resort is closed for business, but has taken in refugees and is housing and feeding 300 of the neediest victims from the flood-ravaged area.

Extreme precipitation events are one of the most obvious observations of a changing climate. For each 1 degree Celsius added to the global temperature, the capacity of the atmosphere to hold moisture increases by about 7 percent. This is a physical fact of the Earth’s climate system. By burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil, we’ve increased the amount of carbon dioxide which traps energy from the sun and heats the atmosphere, increasing evaporation, resulting in more moisture being held up in the world’s atmosphere.

What goes up must come down and West Virginia coal country has become the latest area to fall victim to extreme precipitation in our warming world. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Northeast (including West Virginia) has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the United States. Between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast saw more than a 70 percent increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events.

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The recent flooding isn’t the only hit coal country has taken recently.  Numerous major coal companies have filed for bankruptcy within the past year including Peabody and Arch Coal. The industry is contending with low natural gas prices, declining costs for renewables, a threatening regulatory environment and world governments signaling an end of the Fossil Fuels Era at the climate talks in Paris last December. Coal workers need our help, and subsidizing the coal industry at the expense of our climate is not a solution. There is hope for coal industry workers though. A new study published in the journal Energy Economics found hope for industry workers in high-quality employment in the rapidly expanding solar photovoltaic industry.  Joshua Pearce of Michigan Tech along with co-author Edward Louie, of the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University, found that the growth of solar-related employment could absorb the layoffs in the coal industry in the next 15 years.

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According to the press release from Michigan Technological University: “To determine this, Louie and Pearce compared existing coal industry jobs — and the salaries and skill sets of these positions — to ones in the solar industry. Then they estimated the cost of returning to school and re-training time. Pearce notes that the estimates are simply examples and could vary, although there are numerous low cost options for solar training that people could pursue while still employed.

‘Many of these coal miners have transferable skill sets already,’ says Christopher Turek, the director of Solar Energy International. ‘These range from mechanical and electrical expertise, all the way to their confidence in working in a highly technical field with a strong focus on safety.’ Currently, based on data from The Solar Foundation, the photovoltaic energy industry is bringing on new workers 12 times faster than the overall economy. As of November 2015, the solar industry employs 208,859 solar workers, which is already larger than the roughly 150,000 jobs remaining in the coal industry. And the photovoltaic energy sector is expected to continue expanding.”

There is no denying that coal played a major part in the development of our country, but as the West Virginia disaster shows, there is also no denying the consequences we will suffer if we continue to release massive quantities of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels into the atmosphere. Congress can help Americans and coal industry workers by embracing a clean energy economy that will create millions of jobs for workers to transition to.

The Climate Solutions Caucus is a bipartisan group in the U.S. House of Representatives to explore policy options that address the impacts, causes, and challenges of our changing climate. There are four Pennsylvania Representatives currently on the caucus of 16.  Reps. Boyle, Costello, Fitzpatrick and Meehan have joined to look for solutions to climate change.  I encourage our own Rep. Scott Perry to become the newest PA Representative to join the caucus and seek out economically-viable solutions to reduce the risk climate change poses to our country.

— Jon Clark is Mid-Atlantic regional co-coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby and lives in Dover.