Ky. Voices: Denial of climate change dangerous political stand

Erik Reece is the author of Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness. He teaches writing at the University of Kentucky.
Erik Reece is the author of Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness. He teaches writing at the University of Kentucky.

Smack in the middle of February, I heard the ice cream man making the rounds in my neighborhood. It was, after all, a 65-degree day in what has been the mildest Kentucky winter I can remember.

Is the ice cream man in February a harbinger of climate change, the canary in the coal mine, as it were?

Such evidence is obviously anecdotal, and it certainly wouldn't convince the four men left standing in the Republican field for president. None of them profess to be swayed by even the hard science linking human activity to climate change, and they see little reason to regulate the burning of coal or the dumping of its toxic waste into mountain streams.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum dismissed climate change as a hoax created by "political science," and recently he told a crowd, "To suggest that one minor factor of which man's contribution is a minor factor in the minor factor is the determining ingredient in the sauce that affects the entire global warming and cooling is just absurd on its face."

What gets lost in this murky sauce of minor factors is a simple truth: The Earth's fluctuating temperature has always risen and fallen according to the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from the pre-industrial number of 280 parts per million to 383 parts per million in 2007.

Never have CO2 levels spiked like that in the 600,000 years we can measure with ice core sampling, and therefore, only the burning of coal, oil and gas by human beings could account for that rise.

What's more, last month the International Energy Agency (hardly an alarmist body of scientists) announced a record annual increase in atmospheric carbon and further warned that without bold action in the next five years, the Earth's temperature will push beyond the 2 degrees Celsius that climate scientists consider an ominous tipping point.

Why can't the men who want to lead the free world admit we are in serious trouble, brought on by our own profligate consumption? The answer, of course, is they do not want to offend the corporations that truly run the country and finance their election campaigns. Instead they must blame "radical environmentalists" for perpetuating some conspiracy against air-conditioning and incandescent light bulbs.

And because the causes of climate change are so directly linked to strip mining, and because both crises make some people rich, we often see the same disregard for science and dishonest rhetoric when those in power speak about mountaintop removal. That is what makes it so important for us to know the science and to speak with honesty and empathy. Research from the last couple of years has clarified what is at stake for coal field citizens.

In 2010, the journal Science reported dangerously high levels of lead, arsenic magnesium and selenium in the streams and wells near Appalachian strip mines. Lead author Margaret Palmer wrote, "The scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop removal is strong and irrefutable. Its impacts are pervasive and long lasting and there is no evidence that any mitigation practices successfully reverse the damage it causes."

That same year, Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University's Institute for Health Policy Research found that cancer-related deaths are significantly higher near streams that have been damaged by MTR.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the Eastern Kentucky counties that have seen the most mountaintop removal, cancer-caused deaths are almost twice the national average, even after adjusting for smoking.

And last year, Hendryx's research arrived at what is perhaps the most damning evidence: Birth defects in communities near strip mines are 42 percent higher than in non-strip mining Appalachian communities.

Add that together and you begin to understand why, when it comes to physical and mental health, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index ranked every single coal field county of Kentucky and West Virginia in the bottom one percent of the country.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts."

The numbers I just cited are all facts, grounded in empirical research. Yet because the subject of coal stokes such division among Kentuckians, we too often let opinion run untethered from the facts that should be the basis for responsible public discourse.

The real threats of climate change and mountaintop removal demand that we reject the unseemly, self-preserving rhetoric of politicians and corporations. Only then can we have a serious and honest conversation about making the transition from a deadly fossil fuel to a sustainable energy economy — one built around the health and the integrity of Kentucky's land and its people.