Climate crisis is up close and personal

Charleston Gazette-Mail Sunday, November 24, 2019  Op-Ed by Betty Rivard

Earlier this month, I celebrated my 75th birthday during the warmest weather I had ever experienced for November. Some of those birthdays were spent in more northern, western, or eastern climates, but about two-thirds of them have been here, in West Virginia.

I know there is a difference between weather and climate. At the same time, the data on the warming of our planet is overwhelming, as is my own experience of the changes.

This past summer and into fall, I could not be outside on most days for more than five minutes at a time from 9 a.m. until well after dark. Last month, close family members had ash on their windshields out West. A few years ago, I lost an old friend to a heart attack just days after his house was flooded by the Elk River for the second time.

This is all up close and personal.

I admit that I have enjoyed the benefits of free gas from longtime wells and pipelines on my farm in the country, where I lived for over 30 years. I know that the band on the new Apple watch I got for my birthday is made from some high-tech plastic, and that carbon was used to manufacture and deliver it. I know there are plastics involved in the clothes that I enjoyed wearing yesterday. I depend daily on the benefits of gas-fueled travel and transport.

At the same time, I also know that all of this can and must change.

We here in our state, and in our nation, must commit to the same kinds of concrete goals to reduce carbon emissions by specified dates as California, New York and most of the rest of the world have done. We must also resolve to leave our carbon fuels in the ground.

We must invest in the kinds of education and resources required to create and maintain a sustainable future. This investment will not only help here at home. We can also help those who live in developing nations to fulfill the opportunity they deserve as fellow human beings to improve their standard of living and raise their families just like we do. Our state’s innate innovation, can-do culture and creativity can lead the way to design and demonstrate the products and systems that will benefit everyone.

We are always rethinking how we do things throughout our lives. Giving up carbon fuels and plastics is like no longer riding a bike or rollerblading in order to reduce the risk of falling as our bones get older and weaker. Do I miss doing those things? Yes, of course I do. Is my life poorer on account of giving them up? No, it is not.

I can now enjoy the slowness of walking, where I can see every detail along the way. I talk with my neighbors on their porches. I stop and pet my friends’ dogs. I appreciate the flowers in the yards and the improvements in houses. I can see and hear the sole bird singing at the top of a tree.

It is like this to switch to solar power, to windmills, to hydro and to use LED lights and cloth bags instead of plastic and generally use energy more efficiently. Other cultures in our own country are already deep into this constant transition to achieve the goals they have set.

We can do this, too, here in our own state. My neighbor six doors up has solar panels on his roof. We can pass laws to create incentives for all of us to do the same thing and work together cooperatively to afford the up-front investment.

At the same time, we can press harder to take care of our coal miners’ health care and pensions. We can strengthen safety protections and lifelong benefits for the younger and younger miners who develop chronic black lung diseases.

We can continue to reform our post-secondary education and workforce development systems and maintain our investment in higher ed. These measures will allow us to fill vacancies of professionals who retire and to support new jobs in new industries and help miners, oil and gas workers, and others to move into them.

We can reinstate union protections and promote high-paying jobs while creating a floor based on a living wage of $15 an hour. We can require paid sick and family leave to allow more of our citizens to enter and stay in the workforce. We can provide universal health care so people can move between jobs and get the medical and behavioral health care they need, including prevention and treatment for those with substance use disorders and the many chronic illnesses that now plague our state.

These policies are all so basic that it is incredible we have not already enacted them. Those who are focused only on profits and self-interests label these basic human rights and protections as anti-democratic. They create side issues to pit us all against each other.

Even some members of the party devoted to working people have somehow convinced themselves that it is OK to support tax breaks that move more money away from the investments we need into profits for those who keep getting richer at the expense of the rest of us. The budget holes we are dealing with now are a direct result of these tax breaks.

We can no longer ignore the elephant in the room. The world is getting warmer. Our children and grandchildren are in jeopardy. It is up to us to make the changes we must make now in order to protect the quality and very existence of life in the future.

We must tell our candidates and elected representatives how critical this issue is to us. Ask them the gut level question: What are you doing to fight climate change? Weigh each of their actions against what needs to be done. Take their responses and actions into account in deciding who we support and vote for. Continue to stay active in advocating for the necessary changes. Explain to our neighbors the impacts and what we can do as citizens.

We must open ourselves up to making changes in our own lives. This is an issue where we need to have all hands on deck.

We can and will make a difference, both as individuals and collectively. We can each help to ensure that all of our systems — fiscal, regulatory, public benefits, education, workforce, cultural and political — are focused on the preservation of all life on our planet. We are each called to be the stewards to cause this to happen.

As one younger friend, with young children, emailed me recently: “[Climate change] is the most important issue of our lifetime and we can’t continue to stick our head in the sand. Does WV want to be part of the solution or the problem, on the menu or at the table?”

Betty Rivard lives in Charleston.