An age of climate, capture and COVID-19

Appearing in The Parkersburg News and Sentinel:

Saturday, December 19, 2020 Op-Ed by Eric Engle, chairman of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action, board of directors member of WV Rivers Coalition and co-chair of the WV Sierra Club Executive Committee.

“Op-ed: An age of climate, capture and COVID-19”

I was startled out of the lull of nightly streaming with my fiancee last night when news broke on my iPhone about an explosion and fire at a Chemours facility. At first I thought it was the Washington Works plant near my home in Parkersburg. I was not at all relieved to learn that it was in fact a facility about 10 miles outside of Charleston in Belle, W.Va.; a facility that earlier this year was fined by the WV Department of Environmental Protection in the amount of $14,193 for failure to properly manage hazardous waste (see consent order from the Division of Water and Waste Management dated Oct. 1, 2020).

$14,000 is not even half of the cost of an average new model car these days. Here we are, just over two months after this “penalty,” and one person is dead, three are injured, and a shelter-in-place order had to be issued for a two-mile radius around the plant site for approximately four hours on a cold night; the relevance of the cold being that the order required households to turn off their heating units for air safety reasons. Where’s the accountability?

To switch gears a bit, the latest Johns Hopkins University data as I write shows that 57,060 West Virginians (and counting) have been infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus and 870 West Virginians (and counting) have died. Hospitals and medical personnel are overwhelmed. The accompanying economic crisis has led and is leading to unemployment, low earnings, evictions, utility shutoffs and other untold suffering. The Justice administration, meanwhile, is sitting on over $800 million in unspent federal funding for the state and a deadline to use it of Dec. 30. Where’s the accountability?

Then there’s climate change. Recent reporting by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone entitled “How Climate Change is Ushering in a New Pandemic Era” details how our warming planet is “expanding the range of deadly diseases and risking an explosion of new zoonotic pathogens from the likes of bats, mosquitoes, and ticks.” The article states that “By one count, an estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of those, more than 800,000 could have the ability to infect humans.” The author got this count from a report by The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) available at The author pointed out that, in addition to the infections and death toll, “The global economic impact if the [COVID-19] pandemic was estimated at $8 trillion to $16 trillion in July 2020 — it may be $16 trillion in the U.S. alone by the fourth quarter of 2021 (assuming vaccines are effective at controlling it by then).”

For four years, we’ve had a presidential administration and a national and statewide Republican Party that has all but completely dismissed the threat of anthropogenic climate change. A new administration and a potentially extremely narrow lead for Democrats in the U.S. Senate brings hope for change, but we have to act incredibly fast now. A 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that we have to reduce global CO2 and equivalent (CO2e) emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030 and see global CO2e neutrality, or even negative C02e emissions, by 2050. This will help us stand the best chance of meeting the most ambitious 1.5C rise over preindustrial temperatures goal agreed to in the Paris Climate Accords, helping us prevent all of the climate catastrophe we can. Again, where has the accountability been?

Will a new Republican supermajority in the West Virginia Legislature and a continued Jim Justice administration take any of this seriously? Industry has successfully captured the GOP and has captured nearly all of the levers of power and influence in West Virginia (with a lot of help from Democrats to boot). Regulatory capture as it is called — corruption of authority when one constituency, in this case industry, co-opts the regulatory apparatus — is complete in West Virginia. We the people of West Virginia cannot allow this to continue. Everything is at stake. Our futures depend on us.