How many disasters does it take? – KY leaders owe us a climate change conversation

By Jamie Lucke (KY LANTERN)

How many times have we seen it? Disaster strikes. The media descend.

For a few days, the world is mesmerized. Until something new beckons; the media move on.

And the victims recede in our ever-shortening attention spans and are forgotten.

I’m proud the Kentucky Lantern’s debut brought you journalism that does not move on and does not forget.

Journalism rooted in place, liked the Lantern’s, has the power and duty to lift up the stories of people who are battered by forces beyond their control, whether those forces are economic, political or crazy, scary weather.

There is so much to think about and talk about in the work of Liam Niemeyer, Sarah Ladd and Julia Rendleman, as they take us to communities devastated almost a year ago by a tornado that stayed on the ground for 165 miles.

 Delilah Jenkins, 6, runs home after getting off the bus at Camp Graves on Nov. 18. Her family lives in transitional housing after losing everything in the December 2021 tornado. (Photo by Julia Rendleman for Kentucky Lantern)

In Mayfield, Tom Waldrop, co-chair of a recovery committee, told Niemeyer that the town is in a race to build housing before all the people who are living with relatives or in travel trailers give up and move away. In other words, a race for Mayfield’s survival. 

Niemeyer heard similar worries in Dawson Springs, once a spa town, filled now with more reminders of what’s gone, including the sound of children’s voices playing in a park wrecked by the tornado and a huge amount of housing. How people will find jobs weighs on many minds, especially once the post-tornado construction slows. 

Ladd’s reporting reminds us that the traumas experienced by survivors of tornadoes and floods can have the same effects on mental health as the traumas experienced by soldiers in war.

The future holds great uncertainty for Western Kentucky’s tornado survivors and their hometowns; likewise, in Eastern Kentucky, slammed last summer by what now seems like the  annual 100-year flood.

What is certain: There will be more climate disasters, more lost lives, more displaced survivors.

While scientists are reluctant to pin a tornado, or almost any single event, on climate change, the tornado belt has moved east, putting Kentucky in the crosshairs. Also, warming oceans heat the air, supercharging rainstorms, like the one that dumped 4 inches in an hour on parts of Eastern Kentucky, and also setting the stage for tornadoes when cold northern air meets unseasonably warm air, as happened over a big swathe of the midwest last Dec. 10-11, producing an outbreak that killed 90 people, 80 in Kentucky. 

We also know that climate change is disproportionately harming those living on the margins, minorities and low-income people, or as the Environmental Protection Agency puts it, “underserved communities who are least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other impacts.”

Sadly, in Kentucky, we can barely have a serious  conversation about how to respond. Too many of our politicians still pretend the climate emergency is not real or would be too expensive to address, as if the weather disasters of the last 12 months were bargains. 

Or that it’s a joke.

 From a Kelly Craft campaign event.

Republican candidate for governor Kelly Craft told a campaign gathering last month that one of her first acts in office would be to put “Coal Keeps the Lights On” license plates on her state vehicle, according to The Kentucky Gazette.  Craft was expressing solidarity with some Kentuckians, but not those who went for weeks without power or are homeless because of a climate disaster.

One of her primary competitors, Daniel Cameron, joined 11 other Republican attorneys general in an attempt to police the lending practices of banks, lest the financial institutions go overboard on trying to save the planet. Cameron’s move drew a lawsuit from the Kentucky Bankers Association

Outgoing Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. included a warning about climate change in his final address to legislators last month, drawing “ire” from members of an interim committee, reports WFPL’s Dalton York. 

“With time running out, we need to escalate our emergency planning to minimize future property loss and reduce disruption in our courts,” Minton said.

 John D. Minton Jr.

Sen. Philip Wheeler, R-Pikeville, huffed, “I would think that would fall within the policing powers of the legislature to create energy policy.”

To which Minton replied, “Well, if the legislature can control the weather.” 

The Lantern is one place where Kentuckians can have serious conversations about climate and all its implications.

Something that’s been on my mind since the summer floods: What do we collectively owe climate victims?

Now that we’re in a permanent state of climate-induced emergency, the structures we rely on in this country to prepare for and respond to tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires seem too weak. The Federal Emergency Management Agency seemed to be the source of endless frustration for Kentucky flood victims.

It’s a variation on the question that dominated the COP 27 Climate Summit in Egypt last month: What do rich countries that put all the heat-trapping carbon into the air owe the poor countries that contributed little to the problem but are suffering the most because of it?
Decisions about how and where to rebuild, how to build climate resilience into our communities and infrastructure, along with how to make the transition from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral energy sources, raise complex questions that demand commitment from policymakers.

We’ll do our part to nudge that conversation along. We’ll keep reporting how policy — or lack of policy — plays out in the lives of Kentuckians. We won’t be moving on. We’re rooted here. And glad of it.