The responses of coal country business leaders and politicians to the Clean Power Plan recently announced by President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency demonstrate that there are no limits to their willingness to pursue coal industry profits without regard for the harmful consequences of their decisions and actions.
The coal industry has a long history of such irresponsible behavior. That's why West Virginia has biologically degraded streams from perpetual acid mine drainage, fish that can't be eaten because of too much mercury in their flesh, unstable toxic sludge impoundments looming over communities, and ecologically vital headwater streams buried under massive piles of rubble. It's also why coal miners experience agonizing deaths from black lung disease, coalfield residents suffer elevated risks of contracting numerous chronic or lethal diseases, and miners are stripped of their hard-won pensions and health benefits.
The coal industry does not have to operate in such a destructive manner. But the majority of industry decision makers choose to use their economic and political power to oppose every effort to minimize environmental impacts or improve the safety of miners and the health of communities.
Yet in opposing the Clean Power Plan, these business leaders and politicians are rising to unprecedented levels of cynicism and recklessness. While they have long shown a willingness to turn regions of the world into virtual sacrifice zones, their new message is that they don't mind doing the same thing to the entire planet. The coal industry is a primary contributor to the increase in greenhouse gases that is destabilizing our global climate and global ecosystems. We are already experiencing impacts from this destabilization, such as more violent and extreme storms, floods, wildfires and droughts. If we continue on our present course, the best evidence indicates that the impacts from climate change will shift from severe to catastrophic. So in opposing the Clean Power Plan, the message from these business leaders and politicians is that they don't mind inflicting significant harm on every single person on the planet to protect industry profits. Not only that, but they don't care if continuing to burn fossil fuels for energy degrades the planet for every human that will live on Earth in the future and places the very survival of future generations at risk.
Of course, they don't say it that way. The message comes through in their silence, as they continue to promote coal as an energy source without even mentioning the enormous challenge of human-caused climate change. And the message comes through as they harass climate scientists, distort scientific information, and work to undermine all substantive attempts at solutions.
Since they have nothing useful to say about how to address climate change, they try to change the subject. They claim the real issue is that Obama is engaging in executive overreach and conducting a personal war on the coal industry.
What they don't say is that the leader of the free world has a moral obligation to respond to this global threat. And we can't ask other nations to step up to this challenge unless we prove to them that the United States is capable of decisive, meaningful actions.
These business and political leaders also fail to mention that Obama is resorting to executive initiatives because a historically dysfunctional Congress that is filled with members who spend far too much time begging for campaign cash from billionaires has proven itself utterly incapable of responsible decisions and effective actions.
The irony of all this is that the business community loves to talk about free market economies being dynamic, innovative and flexible - capable of "creative destruction." Yet what they seem to have in mind is businesses moving across state lines for tax advantages, or corporations moving entire operations to other countries to take advantage of cheap labor. But why can't we rethink and restructure business models for the purpose of maintaining the health of planetary systems on which we are completely dependent? Well, the very notion strikes many business leaders as preposterous, outrageous and impossible - obviously some sort of radical socialist conspiracy that will cause the economy to crash and our country to go straight down the tubes. They seem to believe that creative destruction is to be used only for maximizing profits for shareholders and executives, not for ensuring a livable planet that supports quality lives and healthy communities.
Many of us living in coal states have benefited financially from the coal industry, both directly and indirectly, but that doesn't give us the right to ignore this profound and consequential problem. As Obama stated in announcing the Clean Power Plan, "We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it." If we don't act now to stabilize the levels of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere, our opportunity to prevent a cascade of increasingly devastating impacts from climate change will be lost.
The Clean Power Plan is a reasonable, responsible first step toward meeting this challenge, and it includes mitigation measures to help coal states during this necessary period of economic restructuring and transformation. We can solve this problem, and we can emerge even stronger as a result of our creative strategies. It's time for all of us to face up to this daunting challenge and look for ways to be part of the solution rather than obstacles to progress.
Jim Waggy is a writer, naturalist and environmental advocate in Charleston, W. Va., who wrote this for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.