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Climate action takes a backseat in Kentucky as scientists warn of ‘rapidly closing window’

The Mill Creek coal-fired power plant in Louisville, Kentucky.
Ryan Van Velzer
The Mill Creek coal-fired power plant in Louisville, Kentucky.

The world’s leading climate scientists warn humankind has not done enough to address climate change, but Kentucky’s political leaders have shown little desire to avert the crisis.

At best, they’ve shown inaction, at worst leaders are jostling each other to actively promote the continued use of fossil fuels.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment report Monday. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the latest synthesis report is a call to action to fast-track climate efforts in every country, in every industry and on every timeframe.

“Humanity is on thin ice and that ice is melting fast,” Guterres said. “Our world needs climate action on all fronts: everything, everywhere, all at once.”

The U.N. report, authored by hundreds of scientists over eight years, represents a comprehensive human understanding of the climate change and the steps necessary to address it. Authors say there is still time to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis, but the window is “rapidly closing.”

Human activities have already warmed the planet about 1.1 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times, and the prospect of limiting warming to only 1.5 degrees (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) is increasingly out of reach. The larger the overshoot, the more irreversible impacts. Only deep and sustained cuts will meet the goal.

Even if no new fossil fuel infrastructure were built, the projected carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel infrastructure are enough to exceed the remaining carbon budget if action is not taken, according to the report.

To achieve the goals laid out in the 2015 Paris Agreement and limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the planet now needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 60% by 2035, according to the report.

“Today’s IPCC report is a how-to guide to diffuse the climate time bomb. It is a survival guide for humanity,” Guterres said. “As it shows, the 1.5 degree limit is achievable but it will take a quantum leap in climate action.”

Climate change in Kentucky

Kentucky too, has felt the sting of climate change. Warming temperatures increase the amount of energy in the atmosphere, causing more severe weather, increasing the risks of floods and droughts, urban heat, making allergies worse and ticks more common.

Climate scientists say it’s likely that climate change contributed to the July floods in eastern Kentucky and shifting tornado alley into western Kentucky. The nonprofit research group First Street Foundation found that Kentucky is likely to become part of an “extreme heat belt” with a 200% increase in local hot days over the next 30 years.

In total, Kentucky experienced 54 large natural disasters between 2003 and 2022, costing the state a combined estimated total of between $10 and $20 billion.

The IPCC report states plainly that government actions play a crucial role in accelerating shifts toward sustainability, but state elected leaders have done little to slow the climate crisis, or help residents adapt.

Elected inaction

Kentucky is not among the 24 states that have adopted specific greenhouse gas emissions targets, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Kentucky’s last climate action plan was written in 2011 while Gov. Andy Beshear’s father, Steve Beshear, was still in office. That plan called for reducing state greenhouse gas emissions 20% below 1990 levels by 2030.

Gov. Andy Beshear rarely mentions climate change in his speeches and touts an all-of-the-above energy approach for the state, though he encourages investment in the state’s electric vehicle and hydrogen industries.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron has spent a great deal of time using his office to undermine climate action, including opposing federal rules to reduce smog, on-road carbon emissions, efforts to shut down the Keystone XL Pipeline, and stopping asset management firms from using "environmental, social and governance" goals.

And in the last two weeks, Cameron has beefed with fellow Republican candidate for governor Kelly Craft, each arguing that they were a bigger advocate for coal and fossil fuels.

“In terms of actual results, Daniel Cameron as AG has done an incredible amount of actual work, achieving actual results advocating for KENTUCKY coal and fighting the Biden administration's EPA,” one release last week from Cameron’s campaign read.

And here’s the last paragraph from an op-ed written by Craft earlier this month.

“As Governor, I will defend Kentuckians from these costs by defending coal. And I will not allow the premature closure of coal plants because I know that so long as Kentucky burns coal, Kentucky’s promise can shine bright.”

Craft’s husband is the billionaire founder of Alliance Resource Partners, which mines coal in a half-dozen states including Kentucky.

Utilities and climate action

In the meantime, Kentucky still receives about 71% of its electricity from coal, which is the fourth largest share of any state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, it has among the lowest amounts of wind and solar generation per square mile of states.

Some utilities in Kentucky have no plans to retire existing coal plants, while others are planning to retire several coal-fired power plants in the coming years, though the legislature just passed a measure that could make that more difficult.

The state’s largest utility, Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities, is still planning to move away from coal and reach net-zero emissions by 2050, but they are planning to do that while building two new natural gas power plants as well as renewables.

And when utility regulators asked LG&E's Chief of Operations Lonnie Bellar if the company plans to stop burning fossil fuels after 2050, here’s what he said at a hearing last summer:

“I’m not aware of any decision that we’re contemplating that would include not burning any fossil fuels past 2050. And of course I’m saying we could burn them, they just need to be abated,” he said.

Scientists say the latest report is likely the last warning from the IPCC while the world still retains the possibility to limit warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Guterres says the longer we wait, the harder it will become.

“We have never been better equipped to solve the climate challenge but we must move into warp speed climate action now, we don’t have a moment to lose,” he said.

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

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