Two West Virginia lawmakers — a Republican and a Democrat — held a video conference Tuesday with middle and high school students across the state about a topic that’s not often given much attention in West Virginia: Climate change.
Democratic Del. Evan Hansen of Monongalia County and Republican House Speaker Roger Hanshaw of Clay County took questions from students about how climate change is affecting West Virginia and what lawmakers are doing to address it.
The webinar was part of a weeklong series of events and climate protests coinciding with the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York Monday and a Global Climate Strike demonstration Friday. Hansen, an environmental scientist, is one of a handful of lawmakers, largely from the northern part of the state, who have pushed for action on climate change by the Legislature.
More than 30 classrooms and individual participants dialed in to speak with Hansen and Hanshaw who cordially answered questions from the Capitol in Charleston. Students posed a wide variety of queries to the lawmakers ranging from, “What can we do in school to make our Earth a better place?” to “How can West Virginia be a leader in climate change?”
The first question was from Mary Ellen Cassidy’s sixth grade class at Wheeling Country Day School. Students wanted to know what Hansen and Hanshaw deemed to be the “biggest environmental problem” facing humanity. They also wanted to know what problem they thought would affect society the most down the road.
Hanshaw, who has a PhD in chemistry and is a practicing attorney whose clients have included natural gas companies and gas lobby groups, answered first.
“I believe that it's one that we're going to ... you may not think about immediately, but it's our increased reliance on technological devices,” Hanshaw said. “And that's a topic that may not seem immediately linked to the environment until you think about sort of the chemistry of electronic devices, and how do we power batteries.”
Hansen said ensuring West Virginia has clean water is a top challenge for the state.
“You know, we're here to talk about climate change, and I think that's the biggest global challenge that we face right now,” he added.
Searching For Common Ground
Throughout the video conference, ideological differences between the two scientists emerged.
While Hansen often invoked the scientific community's understanding of climate change to answer questions, Hanshaw offered students a window in the ways lawmakers balance science and other competing interests when considering how to make public policy.
“One of the most challenging things that governments do — and it's probably, again, true at every level of government, from city councils all the way to sovereign legislatures and sovereign states, to the Congress of the United States to the U.N. — is balanced competing interests,” Hanshaw said. “So, things that might seem obvious come with incredible consequences that sometimes haven't been thought through.”
As Speaker of the House, Hanshaw helps set policy priorities in the Legislature. He alluded that current policy proposals to address the climate crisis, such as the Green New Deal, a sweeping idea that calls on the U.S. to transition away from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas by 2030 and would offer billions in public works programs and aid, may have unforeseen consequences in West Virginia.
“So for us in West Virginia, the fossil industries are very important,” he said. “They fund the public school systems in many of our counties, and an abrupt, a rapid, transition away from that industry, or our reliance on it [has] the potential for devastating effects on local economies.”
For Hansen, and others across the state urging West Virginia policymakers to take action on climate change — including hundreds of students who participated in the Global Climate Strike at West Virginia University and Marshall University on Friday — not taking action only disadvantages the state.
“We have an opportunity now, if we participate in those discussions and negotiate well, where we can actually get millions of dollars invested back into West Virginia communities that are hardest hit,” said Hansen, referring to policy proposals that would address climate change. “We're losing coal, and the[re is a] need for it to be a ‘just transition,’ so that we just don't need coal miners and their families hanging.”
Some consensus around reforming the state’s laws around solar seemed to emerge. Hanshaw said he supported proposals to install solar arrays on abandoned coal mines. A bill Hansen sponsored last session that would have done that died in committee. West Virginia currently offers no incentives for investments in solar energy, and ranks 49th in the nation in installed solar capacity.
Policy action to address climate change in West Virginia will be a tough sell without the support of Gov. Jim Justice. The governor went on Fox Business Monday evening and discussed the recent climate demonstrations that brought millions of young people from around the world into the streets demanding action.
“It's a terrible shame,” Justice said as footage of protesting young people played. “It is just unbelievable that we have gotten to this level. And I don't really blame the kids, I blame our leaders because they are misinformed.”
Nationwide, and in West Virginia, the amount of coal mined dropped to the lowest level in nearly 40 years in 2018. A 2018 report by West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, projects from 2020 through 2040, coal production in West Virginia will continue to drop, hitting 66 million tons by 2040, a 17 percent decline from 2016.
Meanwhile, if action isn’t taken to curb the use of fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scientists expect temperatures to continue to rise, extreme weather to worsen, including droughts and floods. Rising seas will displace millions of people. In Appalachia, research shows the region will largely become warmer and experience more intense rainfall, which could stress infrastructure and leave the region vulnerable to flooding like was seen in 2016.
In his interview with Fox, Justice lambasted the Green New Deal and stoked fears that it would abruptly end the use of coal and natural gas.
“If you just cut off coal and cut off gas today, I mean, in 60 days we would have a total meltdown in this country,” he said.
Under the proposal, the transition would take place over the next decade. It has been criticized for its cost and feasibility.
Justice also said that despite the state’s reliance on extractive industries, “we have pristine air and pristine water.” A study released this week analyzed health-based violations of the federal law that protects drinking water. It found 36 of the state’s 55 counties among the top third worst-offending U.S. counties.
Students Weigh In
Inside Mary Ellen Cassidy’s classroom at Wheeling Country Day School, students watching the climate webinar were excited to speak directly to the people making the laws.
They were also worried about what a transition away from fossil fuels would look like.
“What will the people's jobs be like?” asked student Victor Slack. “Will they put in solar panels for living after that?”
Other students expressed concerns about not taking action.
“So, we know if we don’t move away we know that Antarctica, in Alaska, and most of the cold places, are starting to melt,” said student Miriah Lane. “And the water level is rising. So, maybe it would rise too high, or maybe it would get too hot.”
West Virginia lawmakers are expected to discuss renewable energy at an upcoming interim meeting in November.
WVPB Assistant News Director Glynis Board contributed to this report.