Kentucky’s climate is changing quickly. The Bluegrass State is the ninth most threatened state in the country by long-term climate change impacts, according to a recent study based on data from Climate Central. That puts it ahead of even California, where wildfires recently have wreaked havoc. Erratic weather, exceptional heat, drought, wildfires and flooding all threaten Kentucky.
Kentucky is a microcosm of the nation’s climate dilemma: the effects of the climate crisis are clear here, but legacy interests and the forces of change are at an impasse. “There’s a lag between where we need to be and where we’re at right now,” said Lane Boldman, who directs the Kentucky Conservation Committee, a nonprofit environmental policy group. “And there really isn’t a lot of time.”
According to a study this month by Yale and George Mason universities, Kentucky is one of only four states in the country where a majority of adults do not believe global warming is caused by humans.
Coal industry ties run deep, however, and, for many, talk of change is anathema. The state legislature has mostly avoided the climate issue. And US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, by far the state’s best-known politician, has been a dedicated opponent of climate action. McConnell has accepted more than $3m from the coal, oil and gas industries over the course of his career. Critics say he’s returned the favor with handouts – tax breaks and regulatory cuts – to keep the dying industry aloft. In 2017, McConnell joined the Trump administration in urging America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate Agreement. In 2019, he engineered what he admitted was “a show vote” intended to kill the Green New Deal. Meanwhile, McConnell sits on the Senate agriculture committee but has seemed indifferent to how climate change threatens Kentucky’s sizable agricultural sector.
Similar apathy reigns in the state legislature, where Republicans hold a lock on both houses. The chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy committee, Jim Gooch, for example, told Louisville’s WFPL radio station recently that the science on climate change remains unsettled. Other legislators seem still beholden to the coal industry, reform advocates say, and to utility companies.
The coal industry employed some 38,000 Kentuckians when McConnell took office in 1985; it’s below 4,000 today. Workers in the mountainous eastern part of the state have found themselves laid off and uncompensated for their work by coal bosses. And deregulation has led to one of the worst black lung epidemics on record. Eastern Kentucky counties are among the poorest in the nation, with poverty rates around 40%. The water in some of those counties is either undrinkable or unaffordable.
Three of the five wettest years on record in the state have been in the last decade, and this summer saw the most rain of any two-month period on record going back to 1895. More rain can boost crops, but in many parts of Kentucky rain now comes in unhelpful torrents. In both the eastern mountains and urban areas, excessive rain has contributed to severe and frequent flooding. In Louisville, this year, rain has turned neighborhoods into swamps and devastated businesses. The precipitation uptick is “very much consistent” with scientific projections for how climate change will play out in the state, Stuart Foster, Kentucky’s state climatologist, said.