“Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
With those words, attorney Joseph Welch scolded red-baiting Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy during a 1954 Senate hearing and, in an instant, released the pent up disgust of the nation toward a politician whose reckless accusations poisoned public debate, fomented fear, damaged lives, and exacerbated tensions at a time when the possibility of nuclear war was far from remote.
If that was all McCarthy had to do to earn Welch’s scolding, which caused those present in the gallery that day to erupt in applause, then how severe a scolding have West Virginia politicians earned with their ferocious and equally false denunciations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new carbon emission regulations?
Their complaints and predictions of catastrophe, like McCarthy’s accusations, distort the truth, substitute hysteria for understanding, induce paranoia, and worse, they flirt with the possibility of destruction on a global scale if their arguments gain wide acceptance. As it is, their reflexive condemnation of any measure that reduces coal consumption has plunged West Virginia into a state of delusion about the coal industry and its role in our economy, particularly with respect to jobs.
But, amid their blizzard of warnings, accusations and threats, it’s what West Virginia leaders don’t say and apparently don’t even contemplate that earns them a shaming at least as severe as the one Welch inflicted on McCarthy sixty years ago.
When was the last time you heard Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Sen. Joe Manchin, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant or Attorney General Patrick Morrisey discuss or even so much as mention the social, economic and human costs of mining and burning coal both for West Virginians and people elsewhere? Not just the effects of manmade global warming, but the effects on the health of those who live downwind from where coal is burned as well as the health of families who live in the vicinity of coal mines and whose members work in them?
For that matter, how many of the recent news stories about the proposed reductions in carbon emissions enumerated or even summarized the health and economic benefits of doing so? The supposed costs have been reported in excruciating detail.
By now, even casual news watchers have heard the Chamber of Commerce prediction that the new regulations will cost the US economy $50 billion and 224,000 jobs annually, that dozens of the nation’s coal-fired power plants will have to close by 2030, and that electric rates will skyrocket.
But, how many people know that between 2,000 and 7,000 Americans die prematurely every year due to coal-induced conditions? How many know that sea level rise threatens to displace more than 50 million people who live in low-lying regions around the world?
How many know that the cost of offsetting the effects of sea level rise in poor countries is more than $100 billion annually and that New York City is already spending more than a billion dollars by itself in an effort to secure its electric grid against increasingly severe floods brought about by global warming? How many know that more than 70,000 coalminers have already been killed by black lung disease and more will follow?
How many people know that in this year alone millions of Americans have temporarily or permanently lost access to clean water because of coal?
Finally, how many people recall that industry has a long and ignominious history of fear mongering with hysterical claims of imminent disaster as a result of environmental standards? Claims of massive job loss and skyrocketing electric prices go back more than 40 years to the dawn of the EPA and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
Blackouts, “part-time electricity,” “galloping unemployment” and unaffordable electric rates were just some of the bogeymen that industry promised would attack us if we dared protect the environment.
Instead, none — not one — of those things materialized because innovative technologies and changes in consumer behavior jumped into the void just as they are doing right now with the rise of solar power, the cost of which has nearly reached a point of price competitiveness with coal and will probably soon undercut coal as natural gas is already doing.
The bottom line is that the costs of which the Chamber of Commerce warns are likely to be exaggerated and, meanwhile, the costs of inaction are far from zero. In fact, the cost of doing nothing appears to be far greater by every meaningful standard. Or does that simply not matter? Has our single-minded obsession preserving West Virginia’s coal mining industry at all costs made us completely numb to the crippling effects of that industry not just on others, but on ourselves as well?
At what point must we do what West Virginia’s political leaders refuse to do — look at both sides of the scale and then look at ourselves in the mirror? Because when we do, we will have to deal with the question of how much expense and misery we are willing to inflict on so many others just to keep what we think the world owes us.
And, if we conclude that we’re willing to inflict any level of expense and misery that may be necessary — which is the position our politicians seem to be taking — what does that make us? Wouldn’t we be just about the most selfish people ever to walk the earth? Wouldn’t we deserve and need a latter day Joseph Welch to disabuse us of our self-interested obliviousness?
Still, some will resist. People such as West Virginia Congressman Dave McKinley will continue to insist that man-made global warming is a hoax while also claiming that reports of the growing prevalence of black lung disease and the dire effects of mercury, selenium and coal ash on the environment and on human beings are wrong or irrelevant. The lengths to which they will go in trying to maintain a façade of credibility for such claims are endless and have become so pathetic as to be cartoonish. But, as with all conspiracy theorists, they must at the end of the day grapple with this simple and utterly disarming question: If claims of man-made global warming and all the other dire consequences of burning coal are merely elements of a massive hoax — who is perpetrating the hoax and why? What shared ulterior motive unites 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists and dozens of governments, many of which regularly fight with one another vigorously over other issues?
The answer, of course, is that there is no such ulterior motive and no such hoax. The fact is that man-made global warming and the dire health effects of mining and burning coal are real, they’re here and they’re going to get worse unless we act and, by doing so, inspire other nations such as India and China to act as well. Thankfully, both of those nations appear to be responding.
That’s why, armed with overwhelming empirical evidence and speaking on behalf of the millions of people who stand to lose their homes, their livelihoods, their health and sometimes their lives if we continue to burn coal, I ask Gov. Tomblin, Congresswoman Capito, Ms. Tennant, Attorney General Morrisey, Congressman McKinley and countless other West Virginia politicians who continue to deny reality and to place the interests of the coal industry above those of West Virginia, America and humanity — have you no sense of decency? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?
— Sean O’Leary writes from Harpers Ferry