Trump report says climate change is coming for Kentucky, but lawmakers are skeptical

Aerial view from above Lexington’s Woodland Park looking west toward downtown in early November 2018.
Aerial view from above Lexington’s Woodland Park looking west toward downtown in early November 2018.

A Trump administration report touts local Kentucky efforts to combat climate change — but its dire warnings are having little sway with a coal friendly, mostly Republican congressional delegation.

“Kentucky is one of the few regions in the whole world that hasn’t shown a warming average temperature,” said Adam Terando, a North Carolina-based research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and federal coordinating lead author for the Southeast chapter of the report.

“But overall, the bigger message is the climate is warming globally and we expect that to occur regionally,” he said.

Warming temperatures around the globe will bring increased flooding and warmer temperatures to Kentucky, threatening to disrupt agriculture and other sectors of the economy, warns the congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment, released by 14 federal agencies last week.

Although Kentucky and several other Southeast states have bucked the global trend of rising average temperatures, Terando said the data show a warming trend that could lead to hotter nights, which could hurt certain crops and make it more difficult for people to recover from daytime heat.

President Donald Trump has said he’s skeptical of the report, telling the Washington Post that “a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers.”

In Kentucky, officials are wary of what they see as overly aggressive efforts to combat climate change. They’re eager to shield the coal industry from further decline and to aid miners and their families.

Coal jobs in the state dropped this year to fewer than 7,000, less than half of the most recent peak in 2011, when coal employment topped 18,000.

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Vanceburg, who says he’s “bullish” enough on solar energy that he built his house to run on it exclusively, said the energy alternative has drawbacks, chiefly the cost of storing the energy.

“Any government effort to artificially limit coal and gas electric sources before energy storage is more fully developed will lead to higher energy prices, rationing, and possible black outs depending on the degree of government intervention,” he said.

Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, said he’s not a climate change denier and doesn’t dispute the report’s findings. But he disagreed with proposed solutions, including a carbon tax to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say are warming the planet.

“As a congressman with a reputation for a pro-coal, pro-fossil energy record, I know that people would say I’m insensitive to environmental or climate change issues and that’s not true,” Barr said. He cited his conversations with Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, about the threat climate change and rising tides present to the coastline.

“To say we are going to discriminate against fossil energy either through regulation or taxes is not good for our economy,” Barr said.

Curbelo supports a carbon tax on polluters and Barr does not, arguing that the country should instead invest in research.

Advocates of a carbon tax argue that it would not only dampen demand for fossil fuels, but increase innovation and research by sparking a demand for alternatives to fossil fuels.

Barr and the other Kentucky congressional Republicans in 2016 voted to block spending on a Defense Department plan for climate adaptation and resilience.

Neither of Kentucky’s Republican senators, Rand Paul or Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had reviewed the report. Both signed a 2017 letter to Trump applauding his efforts to roll back Obama-era regulations, including the 2015 Clean Power Plan designed to cut planet-warming emissions from the nation’s power plants.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Bowling Green, said he shared concerns about climate change, but that he’s “mindful of the costs associated with over-regulation that hurt our economy.”

The delegation’s sole Democrat, Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, will become chairman of the House Budget Committee in January, and plans to hold hearings aimed at demonstrating the cost of climate change to federal taxpayers.

“We want to illuminate the many different ways climate affects the federal budget,” Yarmuth said. “Whether it’s farm support payments, flood insurance, disaster relief, public health, there are a multitude of ways in which climate change affects us in financial terms.”

The administration report helps spotlight the divide between federal lawmakers and local officials, who have tackled climate change projects. Among those highlighted in the report: The Green River District Health Department in a mostly rural region of western Kentucky researched ways to prepare for the projected health consequences of extreme heat, drought and flooding.

“Going into the project, we were conscious that there is a political element, but we ignored the politics of it,” said Clayton Horton, public health director for the seven-county health department. “We looked at what are the hazards and what do we need to do to address the needs of our community.”

The report also cites Louisville for installing 145,000 square feet of “cool roofs” — designed to reflect sunlight and absorb less heat — after conducting a study of urban heat. A 2014 report by the non-profit Climate Central ranked the city as having the fifth most intense urban heat island in the U.S., out of 60 cities surveyed.

City officials said their effort is part of Sustain Louisville, a larger campaign to address sustainability, including climate change.

That the federal government may not share the urgency is not a stumbling block, said Jeff O’Brien, director of Develop Louisville, the city’s real estate and community development arm.

“It’s much more simple for us, we have our residents’ safety and the value of business on the line,” said O’Brien, noting the city has grappled this year with record rain and flooding. “Regardless of what science says or what the White House says, the reality is we have these events and we have to act.”