While recently in Letcher County, I spoke with a young man who described the economic realities of living in Central Appalachia. He told me he had to choose between "going into the coal mines and destroying the land I love, going into military service and being forced to leave my family, or illegally selling prescription drugs."
Nearly a week earlier, I had spoken with a student from duPont Manual High School in Louisville who had decided he would leave Kentucky to go to college because he wanted to study software engineering for renewable energy infrastructure.
He said renewable energy was the fastest-growing energy industry, and he thought Kentucky would continue to fall behind as the rest of the nation and the world developed cleaner and safer energy technologies.
These stories spotlight the fact that while our young people are being forced into choosing between unimaginably depressing situations or leaving, our political leaders are doubling down on absolutely ignoring the needs of our future leaders and pretending our state doesn't have a serious energy economy problem.
Since the Environmental Protection Agency released draft carbon-pollution standards (something young people overwhelmingly support), Kentucky's political leaders have lined up to denounce them.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo and Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers were in rare agreement when they jointly called the standards a "dumb-ass policy," even though the policy reflects what the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet had requested from the EPA.
Secretary of State Alison Grimes and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell have come out in support of uninhibited fossil-fuel expansion. Both Senate candidates lack a vision to change our energy economy.
And then there is the June 23 op-ed by former U.S. Rep. Geoff Davis. Davis basically concluded that:
■ The U.S. should not be a leader in addressing carbon pollution because other industrial countries, such as China, aren't doing anything.
■ Kentucky should not focus on developing renewable energy and investing in energy efficiency because it would cost too much.
■ Only radical environmental activists believe we should regulate carbon pollution.
Upon closer examination, Davis' arguments do not pass the reality-check test.
■ The Pew Charitable Trust reports that China is the global leader in renewable energy investments (almost $20 billion more than the U.S. in 2013). The day after the EPA unveiled America's carbon-pollution limits, a Chinese official talked about China introducing a carbon cap of its own, likely starting in 2016.
■ A 2012 study by Synapse Energy Economics stated that the introduction of legislation in Kentucky that would require utilities to invest more in energy efficiency and renewable energy over 10 years would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 15 percent; reduce average electric bills by 8 to 10 percent; achieve net increases of 28,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in gross state product.
■ A recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 70 percent of Americans want the federal government to limit climate-change pollution from power plants, including 57 percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Independents and 79 percent of Democrats.
The poll asked voters if they would support carbon limits even if electricity costs rise, and 51 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Independents and 71 percent of Democrats said yes.
So I say to Davis and all the current elected officials, young Kentuckians need leadership, not politics. It seems like the people we have elected to Frankfort and Washington are standing around pointing fingers as our families and friends are dying from cancer and respiratory disease while being forced to tell their siblings they can't drink out of the well, swim in the streams or even grow crops on our polluted lands.
All this drives young entrepreneurs and other businesses away. Will we have to look into our children's eyes and confess that we had the opportunity, but lacked the courage? That we had the technology, but lacked the vision?
For all our sakes, I sure hope not.
Tyler J. Offerman is the Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition's renewable energy and policy organizer.