I hoped to strike a nerve — and apparently succeeded — when I wrote an April 14 editorial that began: "Mitch McConnell and others who are trying to obstruct climate protections will be regarded one day in the same way we think of 19th-century apologists for human slavery: How could economic interests blind them to the immorality of their position?"
Senate Majority Leader McConnell fired off a stinging response. He almost always does, which we appreciate; we like publishing lively exchanges of ideas and are glad he reads us.
The newspapers in Bowling Green and Paducah also took us to task.
"The Lexington Herald-Leader should be ashamed of itself for its efforts in a recent editorial to try to say that history would equate McConnell efforts to protect coal to 19th-century apologists for slavery," a Bowling Green Daily News editorial said on April 22.
McConnell's office e-mailed that editorial to media along with an April 19 column by Paducah Sun publisher Jim Paxton. Both pieces stressed that McConnell is just honoring the promise he made last year to voters.
As the Daily News wrote, "He is looking out for Kentuckians and those in other states who depend on coal for their livelihood."
OK, take that sentence, substitute "slavery" for "coal." The same thing could be said of the gentlemen who the antebellum South elected to Congress. They were just looking out for their constituents who depended on slavery for their livelihood.
Other parallels between anti-abolition and anti-EPA arguments are easy to find.
Critics of President Barack Obama's proposals for reducing the output of heat-trapping carbon dioxide warn the cost of the energy transition would cripple the economy. McConnell calls the power-plant regs an "attack on the middle class."
Critics of abolition warned that ending slavery would cripple the national economy because cotton was the major export and critical to northern industrialization and finance.
The pro-slavery argument was dressed up as states rights. McConnell insists the Environmental Protection Agency is flouting its constitutional bounds and urges governors to resist. McConnell often speaks of "defending our way of life," a sentiment dear to Dixie from slave days to the head-bashings in Birmingham.
Southerners constructed elaborate theological defenses of slavery. Republican Sen. Jim Inhoffe of Oklahoma insists only God can alter the climate.
I could go on but here's what matters: Something that is so clearly wrong in retrospect — "America's original sin," McConnell calls it — could be so easily rationalized when it was convenient to do so. Defending coal, even by denying climate change, feels right to many people; so did defending slavery.
McConnell accuses us of "ratcheting up the rhetoric." But considering what science says is at stake, I wonder how it's possible to ever ratchet it up enough. That an entire political party wants to do nothing will be unfathomable in retrospect.
I counted the word "coal" a total of 21 times in the McConnell, Bowling Green and Paxton pieces. The word "climate" appears three times.
Not exactly a clear view of the big picture, but popular. The four Republican candidates for governor last week disputed the science of climate change. Attorney General Jack Conway, runaway favorite on the other side, is the only Democrat who has sued the EPA to block the power plant rules. Renewable energy created more jobs than the coal industry lost last year — but not in Kentucky.
The slavery analogy does falter in a couple of ways:
■ Many Americans came to view slavery as an atrocity in real time. We can't look the victims of climate change in the eye; we think of them in a theoretical future. That perception is false, though. Extreme weather is already inflicting economic damage and human suffering. Droughts, superstorms, floods, loss of snow melt will intensify, producing famine, water shortages, migration and conflicts. Yet we demand no action. The climate needs a Harriet Beecher Stowe. Being called "liberals and environmentalists" is mild compared to "anarchist, fanatic, detestable villain" and other epithets hurled at abolitionists.
■ Then there's the ticking time bomb aspect. It's been 150 years since the assassination of the Great Emancipator (who, by the way, got 1 percent of the vote in his native Kentucky in 1860). We have yet to rid ourselves of the poisonous legacies of white supremacy and slavery.
The Earth can't wait that long.
Reach Jamie Lucke at firstname.lastname@example.org and 231-3340.