In 2009, when he cast a crucial vote for combating climate change, U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler said: "When I cast this vote, I thought about my children, their future and the duty all of us have to protect God's creation."
Last week, Chandler must have been thinking only of his political future and the slim 647-vote margin that kept him in Congress last November. The Democrat from Versailles knuckled under to the coal industry — and to the inundation of unlimited political money with which the Supreme Court now allows special interests to hammer pols who show too much integrity.
Chandler joined House Republicans and 18 Democrats to approve a ban on regulation of greenhouse gases by the Environmental Protection Agency.
In the Senate, a similar shackling of the EPA sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell failed to get enough votes. And President Barack Obama would have vetoed it, if it had, so the House vote was a political gesture.
Still, it must have been a bitter pill for Chandler, even though his reversal is not as inconsistent as it might at first appear.
The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 was a comprehensive plan to diversify U.S. energy supplies and advance renewable energy. Among other things, it would have created a cap-and-trade system of emissions credits (similar to one that all but eliminated acid rain in the 1990s) to control emissions that are causing a warming of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans. The measure included $60 billion for carbon capture and other technologies to keep coal a viable fuel into the future. It also included provisions to soften the economic impacts of higher electricity costs on households.
Alas, the energy act never came up for a vote in the Senate, and President Barack Obama, who had once made it a priority, abandoned the effort to concentrate on health care reform.
In the absence of congressional action, the EPA is moving ahead to regulate greenhouse gases. The Supreme Court has ruled that the agency has the authority and duty, under the Clean Air Act, to regulate these emissions.
But without congressional action, there's no $60 billion for "clean coal" technologies to protect Kentucky's coal industry and economy. And there's nothing to mitigate the effects of higher energy costs. So, the choices facing Chandler in 2009 and 2011 were not the same.
Only time will tell whether his latest stance will mollify the coal industry or whether he'll pay a price by losing the support of green groups and voters who will no longer view him as a defender of the environment.
Chandler's priorities, backed by science, were right in 2009 when he voted to put this country on a sustainable energy path. His children, and all our children, will look back at this period in bewilderment.
Just as we look back 150 years and wonder how our ancestors justified slavery on economic grounds, our descendants will wonder how, knowing what we know about climate change, we resisted sacrificing even a little for their future.