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“It’s past time to begin addressing the climate challenges we face both at home and across the world.” Sen. Joe Manchin wrote that sentence in an op-ed published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail on March 8, 2019.

At the time, he was the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

More than two-and-a-half years later, he’s chairman of that committee. He’s uniquely positioned to shape climate policies needed to improve the health of the country, including his home state of West Virginia. But will he do that?

A growing number of West Virginians worry we’re missing the window of opportunity to address climate change in a meaningful way. We’re confused and disappointed when Manchin questions the need for urgency and calls for a “pause” in taking action, while things get steadily worse.

New research from First Street Foundation, which looks at risks from worsening flood events, says West Virginia is one of four states with the highest concentration of communities at risk. The foundation finds 61% of West Virginia’s power stations at risk, the highest percentage in America and twice the national average. The state ranks first for fire stations and police stations at risk and ties with Louisiana for the highest percentage of schools at risk.

Coal companies continue to go bankrupt, and coal miners continue to lose jobs. In the last two-and-a-half years, nearly 20 coal companies have filed for bankruptcy; in 2020 alone, 151 mines went idle or closed. Boone County, one of this state’s largest coal producing counties, has gone from 4,656 coal-mining jobs 10 years ago to just 728 today. Coal jobs now represent only 3% of West Virginia’s work force.

United Mineworkers of America president Cecil Roberts acknowledges the certainty of the situation. Says Roberts, “We have to be realistic. Whether people agree that it needs to happen or not, an energy transition is going on in the United States.”

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That UMWA document admits “coal is becoming more expensive to use to make electricity than other forms of energy generation. Utilities are closing coal-fired plants at an accelerating pace, and there is currently not a single coal-fired power plant, either under construction or planned, in the United States. Utility companies do not believe they can earn a profit from coal-fired power any longer.”

The UMWA concludes that “The impact on families and communities cannot be overstated. Divorce, drug addiction, imprisonment and suicide rates are all on the rise. Poverty levels are creeping back up in Northern and Central Appalachia, the heart of coal country. For every one direct job that has been lost, four other jobs have disappeared in these communities.”

Manchin could shape policies that both combat climate change and support communities most affected by a shift away from fossil fuels. The most important first step is for Manchin to support the Build Back Better legislation currently being considered and to support the inclusion of carbon pricing as a key element.

Build Back Better would provide $320 billion in tax credits and financial incentives for U.S. manufacturers of clean energy technologies which would help to support thousands of jobs in West Virginia, while at the same time providing relief to rate payers in the state who have seen the electric bills increase at five times the national average due to our over dependence on coal fired electric power. Inclusion of carbon pricing would help to ensure that the president’s goal of a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 can be met.

A price on carbon can generate billions of dollars in revenue. A portion of the fees collected could be rebated to lower- and middle-class American households as a dividend. Another portion could support coal miners, and workers in coal-fired power plants and their communities. None of these payments would raise the national debt. And a price on carbon would give companies an incentive to use carbon-capture techniques, which might extend the life of coal-fired power generators.

The time is now. Manchin must seize the moment and take advantage of new industries and innovations, which could ensure a prosperous future for all West Virginians and secure a livable future for our grandchildren. I implore Manchin not to let us down.

Jim Probst, of Hamlin, is state coordinator of the West Virginia Citizens Climate Lobby.

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