For voters in the mining regions of Kentucky, the culture of coal is a way of life. Yet, John Yarmuth, Louisville’s Congressman (D) since 2006 and a vocal advocate for sustainable energy policies, won his re-election handily last November. As the only Kentucky congressman endorsed by the Sierra Club, Yarmuth has not been afraid to challenge the status quo and his state’s devotion to coal. And as it turns out, his concerns about the negative consequences of mountaintop removal mining – including contamination of his constituents’ water supplies and grave consequences to public health – proved to be in-line with voters in Louisville.
In Politico’s What Works series about how innovative ideas spread from city to city, James Higdon, the son of a Republican Kentucky state senator, writes about Yarmuth’s campaign success and Louisville’s increasing transition toward cleaner energy. Congressman Yarmuth explains: “Part of what we deal with in Kentucky is the coal culture, which is a larger political factor than the economics of coal.” Voters in the coal-mining regions see advocacy for alternative energy as “an attack on their way of life,” which is “more impressionistic than dollars and cents.”
This is a state with laws crafted to protect against “a war on coal,” for example, by capping renewable energy production at 1%, and preventing small businesses and even churches from investing in solar energy through limits on net-metering. In its recent and longer-ago history, Kentucky governors have sued the EPA for blocking state-issued coal mining permits, and even proposed erecting a “World Coal Center” skyscraper to idolize its black gold.
And yet, despite family relationships with coal dating back through decades and generations, Kentuckians are beginning to see job opportunities in alternatives to coal, and more far-reaching benefits of a diversified energy plan. And politicians like Yarmuth understand the importance of balancing authenticity with the need to walk the line with his community’s emotional connection to the coal culture of Kentucky.
For ways to better understand and communicate with your own communities about the economic and health benefits related to climate solutions, please read “Connecting on Climate: A Guide to Effective Climate Change Communication.”
To understand Kentucky politics you have to understand this: When it comes to coal, there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. There is no red Kentucky or blue Kentucky. There is only charcoal black. And Kentucky politics is a coal miner’s daughter.
With roughly 61,000 jobs directly or indirectly linked to the industry and some $4 billion in annual revenue, the state’s devotion to coal is all but carved in stone. One law in the state, for example, allows energy companies to cap renewable energy to one percent of production, saving the remaining 99 percent for coal.
“The coal folks want people to burn coal,” says Wallace McMullen, the conservation chair for the Sierra Club’s Kentucky chapter. “In Kentucky, the coal-state mentality has equally blinded them all” — Democrats as well as Republicans.
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