WV Legislators Discuss Climate Change with WVU Students

by Duane Nichols on September 30, 2019

Severe rain storms are causing damages across West Virginia

During legislative interims, Hansen, Hanshaw chat with students about climate change

From an Article by Kate Mishkin, Charleston Gazette Mail, September 24, 2019

Climate change is real, it’s man-made and it doesn’t have to be political.

Those were some of the messages West Virginia’s students got from their elected leaders Tuesday morning in the middle of legislative interims, when House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, held a climate change conference.

For 45 minutes, the legislators fielded questions about the environmental and economic repercussions of climate change, and what students can do to fight it.

They also answered questions about how something like climate change — a scientifically-backed issue that affects everyone — has become so polarized. The two legislators sat side by side at the head of a long table, facing a laptop, where classrooms across the state called in.

“We don’t get together and talk about issues enough in a civil environment,” Hanshaw told the students.

“But I think having something like this where two people from different parties can come together and talk about what they think about is a good first step,” Hansen said.

The conference happened just one week after young people around the world held climate strikes, urging people in charge to act on climate change.

Climate change is the root cause of extreme weather events, including flooding and drought, all around the world. According to the Fourth National Climate Change Assessment published last year, average temperatures have increased by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit across the country since the beginning of the 20th century.

“The warming trend observed over the past century can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have had on the climate,” the report says.

And in West Virginia, where coal has largely dominated the conversation, climate change hasn’t received a lot of attention in the state legislature.

“I know historically how difficult it’s been to talk even talk about these issues,” Hansen, an environmental scientist, said in an interview later. “But I take the fact that we’re able to have this discussion with the speaker today as a positive sign. He’s obviously given this issue a lot of thought and understands it and understands the policy options that are available … I’m hopeful that there is common ground.”

Asked about how schools can tackle climate change, Hanshaw suggested student leaders make it easier to recycle. Hansen pitched solar panels on school rooftops.

Hansen and Hanshaw both agreed that moving away from burning coal would certainly impact coal miners, and the families that depend on those jobs. It would also affect the state budget.

“If we shut down every coal mine tomorrow and stopped burning coal — which I’m not suggesting we do, by the way — but if that were to happen, that would be very damaging to the West Virginia’s economy,” Hansen said. “What we do have the ability to do is plan for the future.”

That means pivoting toward renewable energy, like solar and wind. Last legislative session, Hansen proposed a bill for the “so-called” Modern Jobs Act, which would create opportunities for renewable energy on formerly mined land. The bill never made it to the House floor, but Hanshaw said Tuesday he was interested in such a bill. During interim meetings in November, the joint committee on energy will discuss renewable energy.

“I don’t think it matters what party you’re from or what you think about climate change; if there’s some easy jobs to bring to West Virginia, I think we would all agree we want those here, especially jobs that will help make the air cleaner and the water cleaner,” Hansen said. But that won’t happen without public policy that would encourage those industries in West Virginia, Hansen said.

According to the Solar Foundation’s Solar Jobs Census, which tracks employment across the country, 341 people had jobs in installation, operations and manufacturing solar energy in West Virginia in 2018. Ohio had about 7,100 and Kentucky had 1,410. Virginia had 3,890.

Hanshaw, who has close connections to the state’s natural gas industry, is also a lawyer and holds a doctorate in chemistry from Notre Dame. But he said his ties to fossil fuels wouldn’t get in the way of discussions about clean energy. “Not as much as people might want to think,” Hanshaw said later.

Asked about the barriers in the way of moving away from fossil fuels, Hanshaw acknowledged the fossil industry is dominant in West Virginia. “In West Virginia, the answer is probably an economic one,” he said. An abrupt move away could devastate local economies, he said. But the kinds of barriers around the world are different.

Lobbyists pose a challenge on the state level, Hansen said.

“They have access because they’re here and the types of people we hear less from are kids and young folks and people who don’t have the resources to hire resources. So I think it’s important for you all to realize we as delegates, we’re just regular people who happened to win an election, but we want to hear from you. We want to talk to you,” Hansen said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Justice on Monday appeared on Fox Business Network to blast climate protests around the world. “It is just unbelievable we have gotten to this level and I don’t really blame the kids, I blame our leaders because they are misinformed, because kids are good,” Justice said.

But facing West Virginia’s students, Hanshaw and Hansen said they’d work on good policies and work toward better policies.

One classroom asked what students can do when they grow up to help address climate change. Both legislators lit up. Hansen has a degree in Computer Science and Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a masters degree in Energy and Resources from the University of California-Berkeley. Hanshaw has degrees in law from West Virginia University and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Notre Dame.

“Become scientists, become engineers. Love math, love science. Embrace it. It’s a gateway to every possible career you can imagine,” Hanshaw said.

And be an inventor and entrepreneur, Hansen added.

“You should never be afraid to start it yourself,” Hanshaw said.

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