Kentucky has plenty of politicians and business executives. But at this critical moment in history, what it really needs are leaders.
President Barack Obama recently decided to bypass a dysfunctional Congress and have the Environmental Protection Agency enforce the Clean Air Act by setting limits on carbon pollution from coal-burning power plants. It was about time.
Scientific consensus is overwhelming that man-made carbon and other pollutants are warming Earth's climate with disastrous results — floods, droughts, monster storms, melting glaciers and rising sea levels. It already has inflicted billions of dollars worth of damage, and it threatens many aspects of civilization.
The nation's 600 or so coal-burning power plants produce about 40 percent of our carbon pollution. Plus, studies increasingly show other tolls that coal mining and burning take on our land, water, air and health.
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The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will shape the global economy of the future. The sooner the United States gets behind that trend, the more economically competitive it will be. But changing the status quo is hard, especially when entrenched special interests have much to lose.
Most Kentucky politicians' reaction to Obama's call for a less-polluted nation was predictable: "War on coal!" they screamed.
A few of our more willfully ignorant legislators voiced skepticism about climate change, or implied that it was somehow God's will. Most others just complained that improving public health and protecting Kentucky's land, water and air would cost too much money and eliminate some existing jobs.
The coal industry has long been one of the most powerful forces in Kentucky. And it has resisted every significant effort to limit the environmental damage it does. The multimillion-dollar public relations campaign built around the "war on coal" theme is just the latest example.
But the current slump in Appalachia's coal industry is largely the result of cheap natural gas, rather than government regulation. And with the richest reserves already mined, many Kentucky coal operators must resort to ever-more costly and destructive methods of surface mining to claw out what remains.
When the coal is all gone in the not-to-distant future, what then? Will Kentucky be positioned for future success? Or will it simply be left with a lot of damaged land, water and people as the world's economy moves on?
Leaders would approach this problem much differently than most Kentucky politicians and executives are. Since Kentucky still has coal, and coal will by default be a big part of the nation's energy mix for decades to come, leaders would champion efforts to mine and burn it more responsibly. They also would double down on research to see if "clean coal" technology can become a reality rather than an oxymoron.
Leaders would lobby the Obama administration and Congress for funds to help Kentucky make the transition, soften costly adjustments and create sustainable energy jobs. Remember how tobacco-settlement money helped reshape Kentucky agriculture? What similar models could be created for coal counties and utility customers?
Ambitious leaders might even set a goal to make Kentucky a manufacturing center for solar panels or energy-efficient modular homes. At the least, they would set out to make Kentucky the nation's energy-efficiency leader through smarter design of new buildings and retrofitting of old ones. Kentucky already leads the nation in energy-efficient school construction, including several of the first school buildings to generate more electricity than they consume.
The General Assembly missed an opportunity for leadership last year when it failed to pass House Bill 170, which would have required electric utilities to use increasing amounts of renewable energy and do more to help customers cut energy consumption. Leadership is needed to pass a version of that bill next year.
By simply allowing citizens and businesses to profit, rather than just break even, by feeding power they produce into the utility grid could make a big difference. With photovoltaic panel prices falling all the time, many people might be willing to invest in solar-panel systems if it could be profitable. Germany now generates 22 percent of its energy from renewable sources, and much of it solar, despite having less sunshine than Kentucky.
Each major environmental regulation since the 1960s — from acid-rain legislation to auto-emissions standards — has been met with predictions of economic doom that never materialized. Instead, those regulations not only cleaned up the environment but they also provided the poke private industry needed to innovate.
The stakes of climate change are greater than anything we have faced before. We can't risk being distracted by the fearmongers. We owe it to ourselves and our descendants to try to limit potential disaster.
Market-based solutions would be preferable to government regulation. But after the demagoguing that so-called "cap and trade" proposals got a few years ago, that seems politically impossible. Industry needs a powerful nudge to innovate, wherever it comes from.
Rather than fighting a war against progress that cannot be won, Kentucky should reinvent itself as an energy innovator. We should show the world that a state settled by pioneers can pioneer again. But that will take leadership, not business and politics as usual.