On Earth, climate change won't depart as urgent issue, no matter how much Ky. politicians wish

July 13, 2014 

Laughter rolled across the airwaves and Internet last week in response to state Sen. Brandon Smith's statements about Mars and climate change.

The Republican from Hazard spoke during a July 3 meeting of the Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Environment. The panel, which has a leading role in shaping Kentucky's energy policy, lived up to its reputation for unintentional comedy.

What stood out most, though, was the pathos — a display of self-deception that a Greek tragedy would envy.

If "we can just hold the line in Kentucky for a couple more years," insisted Smith.

"The light at the end of the tunnel," echoed fellow Hazard resident, Democratic Rep. Fitz Steele, " is we've got two more years to put up with this fellow."

No matter how much some Kentuckians may wish, the pressure to address climate change will not end with Barack Obama's presidency.

Neither will the shift away from coal-fired power that's already happening, even in Kentucky.

As John Lyons, an assistant secretary in the state Cabinet for Energy and Environment, explained, the Obama administration's proposed rules for lowering carbon emissions will not force any shutdowns of coal-fired power plants in Kentucky that utilities have not already announced.

The Environmental Protection Agency's decision to set easily met expectations for states where the economy is heavily dependent on coal-fired power is a tribute to the Beshear administration's arguments. Only Montana would be allowed a higher average carbon output than Kentucky, Lyons said.

Yet, Smith derided the Beshear administration's successful effort to sway the EPA rules in Kentucky's favor as a "white flag" of "surrender."

The satisfying fantasy that Kentucky can defy federal environmental standards was another recurring theme.

Even if the next president rolls back the power plant rules, economic, security and humanitarian concerns will force action on climate change.

What made Smith a media sensation was his statement that the temperature on Mars is "exactly as it is here" and Mars has no coal mines or factories.

Reported by LEO Weekly's Joe Sonka, Smith's remark spread to The Huffington Post, National Journal and beyond. Mars' average temperature, according to NASA, is 81 degrees below zero. Not exactly as it is here.

Not to be outdone, Rep. Kevin Sinnette, D-Ashland, piped in: "The dinosaurs died — we don't know why — but the world adjusted."

The meeting can be viewed online in KET's legislative archives.

We don't blame Kentucky politicians for trying to protect the coal industry or, far more important, the competitive advantage that cheap electricity has bestowed on the state's economy.

There is a legitimate debate about the risk to the electrical grid from the EPA's plan to basically outlaw new coal-fired power plants, absent breakthroughs in carbon-capture technology.

But Kentucky will have a hard time protecting its interests if rational arguments keep being drowned out by nonsense. You can't build a smart plan on self-deception.

Kentucky doesn't have to be cast as the doomed tragic figure in this drama. But it will be unless Kentuckians demand smarter leadership that's capable of seizing the opportunities that always arise in times of rapid technological and economic change.

Mercifully, some wisdom from Hazard also reached a wide audience last week.

Interviewed by The Guardian for a piece about Kentucky's U.S. Senate race, Hazard Mayor Nan Gorman said change has always been unavoidable. "You have to accept that the man who shod the horses just had to go to another profession, didn't he?"

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