This Former Coal Miner's Perspective On Climate Change

The world isn’t too big for us to screw up.

I do not subscribe to the labels being thrown out these days. I do not consider myself an environmentalist, a liberal, nor do I consider myself a conservative either. I am an Appalachian family man who cares about his kids more than the coal companies do.

I’m not naive enough to believe that companies who make a profit extracting and selling coal, oil, or natural gas, are telling us the truth. Instead, they stretch the truth beyond its limits to protect their investments and bottom lines. We see it every day, and miner’s face it when they are injured and seek compensation to continue feeding their families.

Being Appalachian, I also know that many politicians and charitable organizations who have come to “help” us over the years have used our poverty and suffering to gain votes and donations. It is a problem that continues to occur, and after nearly a century’s worth of exploitation from outside entities, it is no wonder we have trust issues.

People are just trying to survive day to day, and when you are just trying to survive, it is difficult to see issues as more than black and white. We don’t have time to ask questions and research answers outside of the information we receive from the most influential people in our lives—friends, family, and sadly, employers.

When it comes to climate change, people rationalize their opinions based on how it affects them. For those of us in Appalachia, the way climate change is affecting us is almost always perceived through the “War on Coal.” Surprisingly, no one seems keen enough to try to navigate around that communications framework with any amount of credibility.

Have humans caused climate change?

Yes. As coal miners, we should know this having seen so much coal leave our mountains. We should also know that we aren’t the ones to blame. We only mined the coal, and often at great costs to our health. The only reason our ancestors mined coal was because outside companies swindled away our mineral rights and left us little economic choice. The only reason we continue to mine coal is because of the economic demand for cheap energy and the powerful corporate interests who seek to make a profit maintaining that supply. For them, climate change is bad for business, and they ensure we bare the brunt of any market changes to that effect.

Despite knowing these motives, many people continue to believe industry-funded misinformation campaigns, assuming there is a conspiracy behind scientific claims of human-caused climate change. Scientific evidence or no, we just have to look at the world around us, along with a few facts about our energy consumption, to come to our own conclusions.

According to the Energy Information Administration, in 2013 the world burned over 8 billion tons of coal. That would fill a coal train that wraps the earth 27 times. We burned it all and we’ve done it year after year. Think about it when you look out over a city at night and see the hundreds of thousands of lights. Think about where all that energy comes from. When you see countless subdivisions with thousands of homes and countless shopping centers, think about all the energy that is needed to heat and cool them, light their spaces, power refrigeration units, and everything else they need or contain. It is all being generated somewhere that includes burning something—a lot of something.

Out of sight, out of mind? Not for me anymore.

And it’s not just coal. In 2010 the world burned 113,000,000,000,000 cubic feet of natural gas. To put that into perspective, a 2,000 square foot home with 8 foot ceilings has 16,000 cubic feet of airspace. 113 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is enough to fill 7 billion homes to 100% concentration. And we burn that year after year.

Every 24 hours in just the US, we burn over 8 million barrels (55 gallons each) of oil, enough to stretch a row of barrels three wide across the US from New York to Los Angeles. That fuel goes into engines and out of tailpipes. Put a balloon on your exhaust pipe and see how long it takes to fill it at idle. Don’t stop thinking about that as you drive at highway speeds where you are going. Don’t stop thinking about it as you pass other vehicles doing the same. Think about all the cars that are on the road at any given time in the US, driving down crowded city streets, interstates, even country back roads. Close your eyes and think about it, everywhere you’ve seen a highway, full of cars at this moment. Every day, day in and day out. How many years have we been doing this? Why have we been doing this? Is it all truly necessary?

The world isn’t too big for us to screw up. We’ve grown from three billion people to seven billion people in just my lifetime. No, I’m not a treehugger, but I’m not ignorant either.

Companies have made billions, if not trillions of dollars off of our energy reserves in Appalachia, and they want to keep it going. Politicians who get their campaign funds from it want to keep it going. What do we really get in return? We extract it for them, they provide us short-term jobs, then file bankruptcy and get federal judges to let them out of having to pay for our retirement healthcare, leaving us to suffer from broken down bodies, black lung, and cancer. For a time coal companies did pay decent coal severance taxes, but most of that revenue was soaked up by state legislatures and used to benefit people outside of our region. What funds did make it to Appalachia were squandered by local politicians. In the grand scheme of things, the average coal mining family doesn’t get jack from coal. We never have and never will.

It’s time to think about our place in all of this and our children’s. It’s time to realize the truth. Anyone who tells us differently is only thinking about themselves and their bottom line.

Cross-posted from The Thoughtful Coal Miner