Summer 2012

On the Road: Headed Back Down Those Country Roads | Catalyst Summer 2012

On the Road

Headed Back Down Those Country Roads

The author with his niece Emma; a local Chamber of Commerce building (below) has a façade made of coal.

You might say coal is in my blood. My grandfather spent his entire career working in the coal mines of West Virginia and eventually died of black lung disease. My father retired from the mines after 27 years of service, and my younger brother works in that very same mine today. I guess that makes me a bit of a black sheep; I followed my innate curiosity about how things work and became a scientist.

Ever since I began working on climate and energy issues some five years ago, I have felt a cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, we must move away from burning coal and other fossil fuels that generate global warming emissions. On the other hand, my native West Virginia is a state where coal is as much a part of the cultural identity as it is an economic driver. Could we find support there for a new path that will provide good jobs as well as a cleaner environment? And how could I help in this effort?

In January UCS enabled me to explore these questions. As a Kendall Science Fellow in clean energy innovation, I am researching opportunities for economic diversification in the heart of coal country. I see my role as a bridge between policy makers in Washington, DC, and the people and communities their policies ultimately affect.

A Hard Truth

In Washington, few even realize that people still go underground to mine coal. Coal states are often seen by legislators as adversaries to achieving economy-wide emissions reductions, and the residents of those states are constantly bombarded with coal industry advertising. Climate change is less tangible (at best) and the Environmental Protection Agency is a four-letter word.

Yet climate change is happening, and we need to embrace cleaner energy sources to reduce the risks. It’s time to have some difficult and honest conversations about how a shift away from coal will affect places like West Virginia, and how we can assure coal-dependent states that they will not be left behind in the resulting clean-energy economy.

I have already made several trips to West Virginia during my fellowship and met with the people and organizations who are actively working to bring economic growth to the state in a way that does not harm the environment. For example, the JOBS Project is helping build support for locally owned renewable energy projects, training workers in renewable energy technologies, and educating residents on how energy efficiency measures can save money. And the West Virginia Manufacturing Extension Partnership is helping companies become more efficient and more profitable, which could help them secure contracts to manufacture components for renewable energy facilities.

Looking Ahead—with an Eye on the Past

If we are to achieve lasting policies that reduce global warming pollution, people in coal country must be able to envision a greener future for themselves and their communities. Through my fellowship, UCS is working to make that future more realistic to the residents of Appalachia by helping them understand that clean energy can bring good jobs to the communities they love.

Appalachia and West Virginia in particular have a right to be proud of their history—their blood and sweat in coal mines powered our nation’s growth. UCS, by partnering with local organizations and developing alliances in a region closely tied to fossil fuels, is gaining new support for clean energy while respecting that history. I feel inspired by the work that’s already begun.

Jeremy Richardson, Kendall Science Fellow in the UCS Climate and Energy Program