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A new study warns Kentucky’s climate risks are growing

 The view of Appalachian Kentucky from Pine Mountain.
Ryan Van Velzer
The view of Appalachian Kentucky from Pine Mountain.

The threats Kentuckians face from climate change are growing. So long as there are greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, warming is virtually guaranteed to continue harming human health, the economy, infrastructure and food systems, according to the latest federal report on climate change released Tuesday.

The latest results from Fifth National Climate Assessment find Kentucky and the rest of the Southeast are particularly vulnerable to climate change, but that regional leaders are failing to make informed decisions that could help avoid the worst impacts.

The peer-reviewed assessment, authored by hundreds of scientists, provides the scientific foundation to inform Americans of the ways human activities are changing the climate in each region of the U.S., and what can be done to limit its effects and adapt to a warming planet.

The entire planet has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the dawn of the industrial era. Scientists say this is the unequivocal result of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity. But the report found temperatures are rising even faster in the contiguous U.S. than than the planet as a whole — 2.5 degrees since 1970.

The Southeast and Kentucky have generally seen less warming than other parts of the U.S. but that doesn’t mean it’s any more insulated from the impacts of a changing climate. The report found that climate change disproportionately damages jobs, households and economic security in the Southeast when compared to other parts of the country.

Climate change risks and opportunities
Fifth National Climate Assessment

Fifth National Climate Assessment
A graphic of climate change risks and opportunities

Both urban areas and rural areas are at risk. Populations are growing in urban centers that depend on climate sensitive infrastructure such as flood walls and roads. And as extreme weather becomes more frequent, that infrastructure is more consistently taxed. Existing infrastructure can also make climate impacts worse, like Louisville’s urban heat island.

Meanwhile, many rural areas across the Southeast, and in Kentucky, face declining populations. Fewer people means a smaller tax base and fewer resources to manage climate impacts. Rural areas also rely on ecosystems that are increasingly unstable because of extreme weather and biodiversity loss, the study found.

“A coordinated approach that recognizes present-day inequities and the interdependencies between rural and urban communities will be necessary to secure the region’s economic vitality,” the report states.

Five of Kentucky’s 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2007, and five of the 10 wettest years on record have occurred in the last decade, according to state climatologist Jerry Brotzge.

Extreme weather events, like the 2022 flooding in eastern Kentucky, are becoming more frequent and severe, the report found. Changes in temperature, drought and extreme rainfall threaten agriculture and livestock, disproportionately harming small farmers.

Climate change threatens the ecosystems and economies that forests provide as well as their ability to sequester carbon. Warming, combined with land use changes, novel chemicals, and other stressors are accelerating biodiversity loss.

The assessment finds that global warming is expected to worsen economic systems, labor and regional supply chains that states including Kentucky rely on for prosperity.

Climate change is also likely to impact human health, particularly in the Southeast where people are consistently ranked among the unhealthiest in the nation. Expected increases in Kentucky’s summer heat, for example, will further stress people with chronic conditions, those who work outdoors, and people who lack adequate shelter.

The report finds all of these impacts disproportionately affect low income communities, and historically marginalized communities.

Given the importance that climate change has on future prosperity, report authors found political leadership in the Southeast has failed to grapple with the established research. They risk failing to protect their communities.

“Decision-makers frequently use outdated and/or limited information on climate-related risks to inform adaptation plans, which as a result fail to account for worsening future conditions,” the report states.

That’s true in the way Kentucky politicians discuss climate change. Both candidates in the state’s race for governor continued to promote the use of coal power alongside cleaner-burning forms of electricity generation.

The winner, incumbent Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, rarely mentions climate change in public remarks or statements and has proposed no actions to reduce the state’s carbon emissions.

Kentucky’s senior congressional leader, U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, wrote an op-ed in June calling federal efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions a “radical climate agenda.”

The state’s Republican-controlled Legislature has passed legislation that makes it more difficult to retire fossil-fuel power plants, and punishes banks for their environmental goals. Last year the legislature passed a bill that requires financial companies working with the state to cease boycotts of the fossil fuel industry — even as they accept funding from companies that embrace sustainable investment practices.

As recently as Monday, the Kentucky chairman of the House Standing Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, Republican Rep. Jim Gooch of Providence, dismissed the science of climate change during a legislative briefing at the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.

“I'm not one that's buying into the doomsday scenario,” Gooch said. “That's been actually what the people in Washington are using to justify very radical, very unworkable solutions.”

The report also finds that the U.S. has taken steps in the right direction. Annual greenhouse gas emissions fell 12% between 2005 and 2019, even as the population has grown. Changes in electricity generation drove that trend, and in particular, a decline in coal power.

These changes have improved air quality across the country and set precedent for investments that minimize fossil fuels and increase cleaner forms of energy. Actions to limit warming are also opportunities to improve human health and the economy, add new jobs and reduce risks to ecosystems.

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

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