I do not subscribe to the labels being thrown out these days. I do not consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal, nor do I consider myself a conservative. I am an Appalachian family man who cares about his kid’s future.
I’m not naive enough to believe that companies who make a profit extracting and selling coal, oil, or natural gas, would tell the truth if it meant giving up some of that profit because their industries are harmful. Instead, they engage in misinformation campaigns not unlike those the tobacco industry used to undermine claims that smoking is harmful to your health. In fact, they used the same researchers to do the same thing. Miner’s also know how deceptive and two-faced their employers are when it comes to filing a workman’s compensation or black lung claim.
As Appalachians, we are often caught in misinformation campaigns that we are increasingly susceptible too. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when someone is trying to survive the day to day struggle of keeping your family out of poverty, it is hard to find time to figure out how gray the gray areas are. Life becomes black and white, job or no job, food or no food, mortgage payment or foreclosure. Anyone who expects more of Appalachian people without first knowing our day-to-day struggles needs to realign their priorities. But this isn’t the case.
Not only are we prayed upon by extractive industry for our cheap labor and resources, politicians, academic researchers, journalists, and even charitable organizations extract from us. We are “mined” for votes, research data that will further academic careers, hot stories, or our poverty and problems are used to solicit funding from philanthropies or grant agencies. We are not ignorant to these facts and have developed an insider-outsider stigma that makes it difficulty for people to gain credibility among our communities.
When it comes to environmental advocacy, especially surrounding climate change issues, people rationalize their opinions based on how it affects their daily lives. For many Appalachian coal mining communities, the way climate change is perceived is through the “War on Coal” and the dwindling jobs that result from continued closures of coal fired power plants. Surprisingly, few well meaning academic institutions, justice organizations and/or politicians seem keen enough to try to navigate around that communications framework. The “we are right, so you should believe us,” “right equals might” mentality described by Jon Smucker, simply does not work in Appalachia.
Have humans caused climate change?
Yes. As coal miner’s, we should know this (and many do) having seen so much coal leave our mountains. We should also know that we aren’t the ones to blame. We only mined the coal, and often at great costs to our health. The only reason our ancestors mined coal was because outside companies swindled away our mineral rights and left us little economic choice. The only reason we continue to mine coal is because of the economic demand for cheap energy and the powerful corporate interests who own the majority of our mineral rights and continue making a profit supplying everyone’s demand. For them, climate change is bad for business, and they ensure we bare the brunt of market changes to that effect.
Despite knowing these motives, many people continue to believe industry-funded misinformation campaigns, assuming there is a conspiracy behind scientific claims of human-caused climate change. Scientific evidence or no, we just have to look at the world around us along with a few facts about our energy consumption.
According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2013 the world burned over 8 billion tons of coal. That would fill a coal train that wraps the earth 27 times. We burned it all and we’ve done it year after year. Think about it when you look out over a city at night and see the tens of thousands of lights. Think about where all that energy comes from. When you see countless subdivisions with thousands of homes and countless shopping centers, think about all the energy that is needed to heat and cool them, to power the pumps that supply them water, light their spaces, power refrigeration units, and everything else they contain. It is all being generated somewhere and that requires burning something—a lot of something.
And it’s not just coal. In 2010 the world burned 113,000,000,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas. To put that into perspective, a 2,000 square foot home with 8 foot ceilings has 16,000 cubic feet of airspace. 113 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is enough to fill 7 billion homes to 100% concentration. And we burn that year after year.
Every 24 hours in just the US, we burn over 8 million barrels (55 gallons each) of oil, enough to stretch a row of barrels three wide across the US from New York to Los Angeles. That fuel goes into engines and out of tailpipes. Visual this by tying a balloon onto your exhaust pipe and see how long it takes to fill it at idle. Don’t stop thinking about that as you drive at highway speeds where you are going. Don’t stop thinking about it as you pass other vehicles doing the same. Think about all the cars that are on the road at any given time in the US, driving down crowded city streets, interstates, even country back roads. Close your eyes and really think about it. Everywhere you’ve seen a highway full of cars. Every day, day in and day out. How many years have we been doing this? Is it all truly necessary?
The world isn’t too big for us to screw up. We’ve grown from three billion people to seven billion people in just my lifetime. I’m not a “treehugger,” but I’m not ignorant either.
Companies have made billions, if not trillions of dollars off of our energy reserves in Appalachia, and they want to keep it going. Politicians who get their campaign funds from the industry want to keep it going. What do we really get in return? We extract it for them which provides us short-term jobs. Then they file bankruptcy and get federal judges to let them out of having to pay for our retirement healthcare needed for our broken down bodies, black lung, and the cancer we’ll eventually get from increasing cancer rates in the region. In the grand scheme of things, the average coal mining family doesn’t get jack from coal. We never have and never will.
It’s time to think about our place in all of this—and our children’s. It’s time to realize who is benefiting from this deal and why. Anyone who tells us nothing is wrong is thinking only about themselves and their bottom line.