Coal Tattoo

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican,  Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Pope Francis waves as he arrives for his weekly general audience, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

It’s obviously no secret that most West Virginia leaders would just rather not talk about global warming  and the coal industry’s role in the climate crisis. But you would have thought that maybe … just maybe, hearing more than a few words from the Pope on these matters would make the usual suspects be quiet and listen. Doesn’t look like it.

Take the statement issued by West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney:

… There are many reasons for these improvements, but none, perhaps as vivid, as the electrification of parts of our world, which came most successfully with the continued and improved use of fossil fuels.  I am concerned the Pope does not acknowledge that with his challenge to all of us to improve the way we use the indigenous resources our Lord has blessed us with in this world …

I wish Pope Francis would have traveled to Logan, Mingo or any of our other West Virginia counties where miners have been put out of work because of the uncertainty created by polices that mandate impossible requirements that reach beyond today’s technology.  The suffering of that unemployment is vivid, stark and extremely concerning. 

It’s times like this that you have to wonder if West Virginians really understand the world, or the context of their complaints about the downturn of the coal industry and its economic implications. In his new “On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis actually has a lot to say about poverty. But he’s not talking about whether folks can make the payments on their big pickup truck. And what he has to say is important for anyone who really wants to understand the context of this global problem and the path to finding real solutions. For example:

A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable”


Rally For Coal

Then there was the statement issued by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.:

I have said repeatedly that I believe climate change is real, and that the more than 7 billion people living on this Earth have contributed to its warming. I also believe, like Pope Francis, that we must work together to help solve this problem by investing in the technologies of the future that will help provide reliable, affordable and clean energy to citizens around the world. But the fact is our own U.S. Department of Energy believes that we will get more than thirty percent of our electricity from coal for the next quarter century. Without a commitment from elected officials to work with the energy industry, our research universities, and religious leaders, the most vulnerable and impoverished in our country will be in danger of not having affordable and reliable power during extreme times of need. I look forward to working with Pope Francis to address the global climate problem with realistic global climate solutions.

Now keep in mind, the leader of Sen. Manchin’s church just said this:

We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.

And the best Sen. Manchin can do is basically repeat his standard soundbite tribute to the coal industry. And by the way, about Sen. Manchin’s “7 billion people living on this Earth” mantra … well, here’s what Pope Francis says about that:

To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

Moreover, if Sen. Manchin thinks Pope Francis just doesn’t understand the complexities of our energy systems, he obviously didn’t really bother to read this substantial new addition to his church’s social teachings. Because, for example, the Pope explains, right after that part about how we need to stop burning coal:

Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the lesser of two evils or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition. In recent decades, environmental issues have given rise to considerable public debate and have elicited a variety of committed and generous civic responses. Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world.

 It was interesting that, as people around the world were taking in the Pope’s message yesterday, a member of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Advisory Council dared to suggest that the panel might want to talk to DEP officials about how the agency was responding to the new report from the WVU College of Law and Downstream Strategies outlining ways West Virginia could meet the proposed EPA Clean Power Plan.  Bill Raney, who sits on the advisory council, objected to even talking about the matter, saying:

I don’t think we want to get into a discussion about that at an advisory council meeting.

Here’s what West Virginia law says the advisory council is supposed to do:

1) Consult with and advise the director on program and policy development, problem solving and other appropriate subjects;

(2) Identify and define problems associated with the implementation of the policy set forth in section one of this article;

(3) Provide and disseminate to industry and the public early identification of major federal program and regulatory changes;

(4) Provide a forum for the resolution of conflicts between constituency groups;

(5) To the extent possible, strive for consensus on the development of overall environmental policy

So, no, clearly talking about how West Virginia might do its part to address the climate crisis surely isn’t something the DEP advisory council should bother with. Then again, as Pope Francis wrote this week:

Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.