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Kentucky Primary 2019: How Will The Gubernatorial Candidates Tackle Climate Change?

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Ice sheets in Antarctica are melting 10 times faster than expected, warmer temperatures are fueling forest fires and droughts and a million species are at risk of going extinct.

Meanwhile, U.S. carbon emissions rose last year for the first time in three years.

The climate is changing faster now than at any point in modern history. The science is robust. The evidence is indisputable. The decisions we make today will affect the planet for generations to come.

It is not surprising then that every gubernatorial candidate interviewed by WFPL  acknowledged humankind’s responsibility for the changing climate. They included all of the four Democrats running, and one Republican: William Woods. The others didn't respond to an interview request.

Kentucky will become warmer and with it, the weather will become more unpredictable causing more frequent storms and droughts. The impacts on the economy will be far reaching affecting the energy grid, agriculture, infrastructure and tourism among others.

But that isn’t the only reason Kentucky is facing a time of unprecedented change.

Coal consumption fell in 2018 to its lowest levels since 1979, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. With it, fall the revenues rural Appalachian counties receive from coal companies for extracting the fossil fuel.

The loss in coal severance taxes hit Martin County Kentucky so hard that in early February Kentucky Sheriff John Kirk announced he was unable to continue providing law enforcement at night.

“I will have to move my only other deputy to day shift and that will leave no protection on nights. I’m sure the thieves and drug dealers will have a ball. I won’t be able to keep the office open but half a day,” Kirk wrote in a Facebook post.

With this in mind, we asked this year’s gubernatorial candidates how they plan to address climate change and transition away from our reliance on fossil fuels.


Rocky Adkins

Key Quote:

“And to be able to diversify those economies in the making of pieces and parts for the renewable energy industry, or whether it be the aerospace industry or whether it be the hemp legislation in the Farm Bill… All of that is a part of the game plan to be able to diversify the economy of rural Kentucky”

Back in 2007, Adkins was the lead sponsor on the Kentucky Energy Security National Leadership Act, which fueled research and development of alternative energy sources at Kentucky universities. Adkins touted the measure as a hallmark of where he stands on climate change.

Adkins said he does believe in man-made climate change, but also believes Kentucky needs to balance low-cost energy with a transition to renewable energies to stay competitive. He said he's happy to have any kind of manufacturing come to Kentucky, include but not limited to the manufacture of things like solar panels.

Andy Beshear

Key Quote:

“Climate change is real, but you don’t have to take my word for it, ask any farmer here in Kentucky or ask the U.S. Military which is preparing for it each and every day.”

Beshear said Kentucky needs to diversify its energy portfolio including “as many renewables as possible” because mankind doesn’t know where the next breakthrough is going to come from. He also said that this transition has to be managed in a way that protects impoverished families. Beshear brought up his credentials as Attorney General to point out how he has worked to protect families from the rising electricity costs.

Beshear was the only candidate that said managing climate impacts also means improving failing sewage and water infrastructure in rural Appalachia and investing in agricultural technologies to feed the world under changing conditions.

Adam Edelen

Key Quote:

“I am the first candidate for governor in the history of the state, particularly in his announcement, to say the following words: Climate change is real and so are the thousands of jobs that can be created in fighting it.”

Edelen calls climate change the “critical issue of our time,” but says it’s not just about environmental stewardship. For him, it’s also about maintaining relevance in a 21st century economy. As an example, Edelen pointed to his own project to convert an old surface coal mine into a solar energy field. Energy generated at the site will be used to power Toyota auto manufacturing plants, he said.

“Toyota is under a self-imposed mandate to be 100 percent green by 2040,” Edelen said. “It’s not just because they are committed to saving the planet, which they certainly are, it’s because they want to sell millennials cars.”

Edelen said he thinks the future of renewable energy are community solar projects and distributed generation.

Geoff Young

Key Quote:

“The power of the coal lobby has to be broken and the way to do that is by ignoring them.”

Young said he used to work in the state’s energy office where he wrote grants and brought in federal dollars to improve energy efficiency at companies in Kentucky.  He said the state needs to bring in more renewable energy, particularly solar, and improve energy efficiency.

Young said he supports the diversification of the economy in rural Appalachia, but also believes it’s being undermined by corruption, politics-as-usual and coal lobbyists.


Three Republican candidates didn’t respond to requests for interviews.

But the presumed frontrunner, Gov. Matt Bevin, has alluded to the idea that climate change is a hoax and says the world cannot be powered through renewable energy.

“in a vacuum it’s wonderful to imagine that on a sunny day, the sun is going to power our electricity and the wind is going to blow and it’s going to… but’ is not real, it’s not realistic,” he said.

William Woods

Key Quote:

“How can you not (believe in man-made climate change)? And I know, that’s a scary answer to hear from a conservative, from a Republican. But I mean, I'm sure that the average fifth grader could tell you that it's a man-made problem.”

Woods said he is a big supporter of nuclear energy, and something that’s worth looking into for the state. However, he said he that he does not assume to be an expert, and would instead bring in experts to make fact-based decisions about what is best for the Commonwealth.

Woods said wind and solar will likely not fuel the nation and that the Kentucky will probably never get completely out of coal-powered generation.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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