The John Amos power plant in Winfield, WV. Photo by Wigwam Jones/Flickr.

A United Nations report has offered the starkest warning about climate change yet: The climate is changing quickly, causing more severe weather events like heat waves, droughts and tropical storms that have come to dominate our headlines — and humans are unequivocally responsible. It is no longer a question of stopping manmade climate change, but of how quickly we mitigate the damage.

In West Virginia, both climate change and climate policy are poised to have a large impact. In 2018, the state had the third-highest carbon emissions per capita in the country; that’s due in large part to the oil, gas and coal industries, which dominate the economy and would be significantly impacted by carbon-cutting policy. At the same time, a 2017 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report found that West Virginia’s burgeoning tourism industry is under particular threat from climate change, which would likely mean more frequent and severe droughts, floods and heat waves in the state. 

The report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which required sign-off from all 195 United Nations member states, does not mince words about human responsibility. It warns that, regardless of human action, extreme weather events will continue for decades to come. And unless we drastically cut carbon dioxide emissions in the coming decades, the damage could be catastrophic and irreversible.

Mountain State Spotlight posed four questions to each member of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, to get a sense of how they’re responding to the new report, and the threat of a rapidly changing climate. The three who responded were in lockstep agreement about the importance of carbon capture technology, the importance of West Virginia’s fossil fuel industry, and they all pushed the buck to developing countries. Here are their answers, and the major takeaways.

The takeaways

  • No more climate denial: Of the three elected officials who responded to our questions, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Rep. David McKinley, and Rep. Carol Miller, none denied the threat posed by manmade climate change. For Capito, this is a step away from previous rhetoric, like a remark in a 2017 senatorial debate where she said “I don’t necessarily think the climate’s changing.” Similarly, McKinley has previously questioned the existence of climate change, and in 2013 repeated the scientifically inaccurate claim on Capitol Hill that global warming could cause more benefits than harm.
  • Blaming “other countries”: All three of the Republicans who responded said that any attempts by the United States to lower carbon emissions would be meaningless unless other countries played a part. While it’s true that the effort must be a global one, the United States is currently the second-largest emitter of carbon dioxide behind only China, and emits twice as much of the gas per capita as the developing country. Capito and McKinley also criticized the United States’ entry into the Paris Climate Accords, an agreement among 196 parties, including China. Miller, who was not in office when the accord was formed, denounced Biden’s reentry into the agreement after former president Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out.
  • A commitment to carbon capture: The one concrete policy that Capito, McKinley and Miller all mentioned was a commitment to funding the development of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies. CCS has long been the coal and oil industries’ favored response to climate change, as it would allow them to continue mining and drilling, and keep the carbon emitted in the process out of the atmosphere. Scientific organizations like the United Nations climate panel agree that the technology is an important part of any global solution. But it has not been widely deployed because of its expense, difficulties in scaling above demonstration projects, and a lack of carbon emissions limits that would force utilities to act.
  • Notable absences: Sen. Joe Manchin and Rep. Alex Mooney did not respond to Mountain State Spotlight’s questions. The absence of Manchin, the only Democratic member of the state’s congressional delegation, is particularly notable: He is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and will likely play an outsized role in any intra-party negotiation of a climate bill by Democrats. Mooney, for his part, was a supporter of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords, and in a 2014 debate questioned whether humans contributed to climate change. Of the three that responded to our questions, only one, McKinley, responded to each one individually. Capito and Miller sent blanket statements.

The Q and A’s

Rep. David McKinley (R-1st District)

Mountain State Spotlight (MSS): The recent IPCC report explicitly states that the coming decades will see a marked increase in droughts, wildfires, heat waves, and damaging storms. What specific steps are you taking as a member of Congress to ensure the U.S. (and West Virginia) are prepared for such weather events?

David McKinley: Climate change is a global challenge and requires a global solution. The United States could totally stop using coal, gas, and oil and it wouldn’t be enough unless the rest of the world joined in. We would still experience wildfires on the West Coast, droughts in the Midwest and hurricanes on the East Coast

America has already reduced its carbon emissions significantly over the past two decades. In fact, America has reduced our emissions by more than the next 12 countries combined. America should play a leading role in developing the innovation on carbon capture and other clean energy technologies that can be deployed around the world to reduce emissions. However, we should not put ourselves at an economic disadvantage while countries like China continue to increase emissions.

To prepare for extreme weather events we do need to invest in making our communities more resilient to withstand fires, droughts, and floods.

MSS: The report also states that cutting carbon emissions enough to mitigate such risks will require abiding a strict global “carbon budget,” with a goal of net-zero emissions in the near future. West Virginia is the third highest carbon dioxide-emitting state per capita; as a lawmaker, what incentives for the state would you need to see in order to agree to take such drastic action?

McKinley: West Virginia has powered America’s economy for more than a century and should not be written off as collateral damage. We can play a central role in providing solutions for our energy future as well.

The National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown is already doing cutting edge research that can help develop technologies that will reduce global emissions. We just need to put more resources and more incentives that can bring that research out of a lab setting and into commercial use. A report earlier this year by the International Energy Agency states that there is no path to net-zero without Carbon Capture – West Virginia can be a center of research and commercialization of these technologies.

MSS: What are you doing in Congress to incentivize a clean energy industry in the state or support a transition away from fossil fuels?

McKinley: Rather than focusing blindly on ending the use of coal, natural gas and oil on an unrealistic timeline, we should be focusing on ways to use American energy resources in a way that reduces emissions. Our work in Congress has reflected this priority and we have been a bipartisan leader introducing legislation including:

  • The Clean Energy Future through Innovation Act of 2021 (H.R. 4153) with Rep. Schrader (D-OR): The legislation would make significant investments in energy innovation and infrastructure, including carbon capture, advanced nuclear, renewables, efficiency, and storage. After a decade of innovation, it establishes a technology-neutral clean energy standard that would reduce CO2 emissions 80% by 2050.
  • SCALE Act (H.R. 1992): This bipartisan bill supports the development of infrastructure necessary to transport CO2 from where it is captured to where it can be utilized in manufacturing or safely or securely sequestered underground.
  • ACCESS 45Q (H.R. 1062: Another bipartisan bill that improves the 45Q tax credit for CCUS and will help advance carbon capture projects.
  • CCUS Innovation Act (H.R. 1761): This bill will provide additional incentives to develop carbon capture technology by utilizing existing loan guarantee programs at DOE.

MSS: The report finds that fossil fuel and livestock industries have propelled CO2 emissions in recent years. How would you respond to attempts to regulate these industries that support West Virginia and employ many residents?

McKinley: Until the largest polluters around the world are convinced to reduce their emissions, there will be a negligible effect based on actions we take in America. It is foolish to unilaterally take actions that will result in job losses and higher electric costs while doing little to impact climate change. Instead we need to focus on innovation on ALL sources of energy that can provide a global solution. This includes pursuing carbon capture utilization and storage, next-generation nuclear, more efficient wind and solar, battery storage and hydrogen.

Rep. Carol Miller (R-3rd District)

In response to the same questions above, Miller sent the following statement: 

“America continues to lead in carbon emissions reduction because we empowered key baseload energy sources, like natural gas, and invested in innovation. President Biden’s reversal of these policies stifles that success and emboldens bad actors. If the U.N. and the world are actually serious about reducing emissions, we need to unleash the power of American innovation and export our clean, efficient, and affordable energy to nations around the world.”

Asked again if she could respond to the specific questions we sent, Miller said, through a spokesperson, “The focus needs to be 100% on Carbon Capture. Anything else is a distraction.”

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV)

In response to the same questions above, Capito sent the following statement: 

“The United States has been and must remain the world’s leader of developing innovative technologies to address a changing climate, which is why I have consistently supported legislation that promotes innovation to address this global challenge. At the same time, our solutions to climate change must consider the impacts on the average American as well, and policymakers must avoid imposing higher costs on American households or job losses on American workers. As the world’s overall emissions increase, U.S. emissions continue to trend down even as our economy grows—much of both can be attributed to increased use of natural gas. It’s time for other countries to do their part. We should not be giving the heaviest polluters a free pass while unilaterally disarming our own economy.”

Asked again if she could respond to the specific questions we sent, neither Capito nor a spokesperson replied.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.