Kentuckians to attend Copenhagen climate talks

ralessi@herald-leader.comDecember 7, 2009 

Two Kentucky young people will be pushing for global policy changes in Copenhagen as world leaders and ambassadors convene in the Danish capital Monday to begin debating ways to protect and preserve the environment.

Lauralee Crain, a Transylvania University senior from Flemingsburg, will participate in youth rallies as a member of the 18-person Sierra Student Coalition. Marcie Smith, a 2009 Transy grad from Richmond, will return to Copenhagen, where she advocated for more aggressive actions and nations, particularly developed countries, during last December's dress rehearsal for this year's United Nations climate conference.

Both say they hope to represent their generation by encouraging global leaders to take bold actions against pollution not only in industrialized nation but also developing countries.

"Climate change has started to happen and continues to happen. So the most culpable countries ... do have a responsibility to clean up the messes in other countries — the countries that are bearing the brunt of global climate change," said Smith, who has taken a job as an international media coordinator for the group Climate Justice Fast. People from at least 23 countries, through that effort, have been fasting since Nov. 6 to raise awareness about and underscore the urgency of actions to slow climate change.

Smith — who passed up admission to the University of Cambridge in England to learn how to work on a sustainable farm in North Carolina after graduation — said international youth groups will assemble Dec. 12 for marches, speeches and calls for actions.

"We are on the offensive," she said. At the same time, just being there throughout the conference is an important statement, she added. "A key part of our role is becoming witnesses," she said.

The international delegates are expected to spend between Monday and Dec. 18 trying to answer mountain-size questions of how much industrialized nations and emerging powers such as China and India are willing to curb emissions of pollutants and how can those countries help developing nations curtail their greenhouse gas emissions.

It is a follow-up to the 1997 international accord discussions in Kyoto, Japan. Since then, however, Arctic ice has melted and global temperatures have risen faster than scientists expected 12 years ago, as the Associated Press reported last month.

Crain and Smith both said they know some of their outspoken stances won't be popular in their native state, where coal mining remains a staple of the economy.

"I don't think people realize that Kentucky is climate ground zero," Smith said. She likened it to oil fields in the Middle East, where drilling companies profit but those who live nearby and even work for the companies struggle to escape poverty. Extraction of fossil fuels "means your home exists to be exploited," Smith said.

That's not a view shared by many of Kentucky's top officials. For instance, at a conference of county officials last month, state House Democratic Floor Leader Rocky Adkins gave a fiery 35-minute speech about the importance of coal to Kentucky's economic future. He called for a national energy policy that embraced more use of coal with technology that reduces emissions of gasses when burned for electricity.

He received a warm ovation from the crowd and bipartisan praise from Republican state Senate President David L. Williams, who joked that Adkins should run for president.

But therein lies an impasse between the approaches of those officials and activists like Crain and Smith, who say even technology that reduces pollution in coal burning isn't enough because its not sustainable and its mining leaves scars on the land.

"A green economy is necessary to the survival of Kentucky because coal is not a forever resource," Crain said.

Smith said that's one of the debates she looks forward to engaging when she one day returns to live in Kentucky.

"If coal has so much potential, why have the poverty rates in Eastern Kentucky been stuck at 30 percent for the last 100 years?" Smith said. "Why are we still one of the poorest states in the nation? Why do I still get made fun of every time I go anywhere out of the southeast United States?"

Reach Ryan Alessi at (859) 231-1303 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1303.

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