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W.Va. leaders mum on storm, climate change

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The widespread and serious damage from superstorm Sandy doesn't appear to be bringing any urgent calls from West Virginia political leaders for government action to deal with global climate change.

The Gazette asked various officeholders and some candidates exactly what they proposed that West Virginia and the nation should do about climate change to try to minimize future disastrous storms.

Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., did not respond. Neither did Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin or Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley, both R-W.Va.

The only member of West Virginia's congressional delegation who answered was Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Rahall said that "harsher domestic emissions restrictions" should wait until industry improves technology to capture carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants.

"While scientists debate whether abruptly lowering carbon emissions would have any effect on the severity of natural disasters, there should be no debate that such a policy would create a man-made disaster here in West Virginia and in other coal-producing states," Rahall said through a spokesman.

"The wiser course is to find ways to address the challenges of burning coal in a potentially changing world, and the United States ought to lead in that effort so that we can reap the benefits of research and development combined with the existing world market that is in need of more efficient energy technologies," Rahall said.

In the wake of this week's storm, climate scientists say it's difficult to conclusively blame Hurricane Sandy on human-induced global warming.

However, researchers see possible links to human activities in factors that made the storm worse, such as a foot of sea-level rise in New York in the past century, unusually warm waters in the Atlantic, and even a high-pressure ridge that steered the storm in an unusual due-west path.

"Human-caused climate change is delivering a one-two punch that is chipping away at our coasts," said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Sea-level rise and more intense precipitation from a warmer, moister atmosphere make coastal storms more damaging."

In West Virginia, though, where this year's election has focused on what the mining industry has depicted as the Obama administration's "war on coal," some political leaders and candidates are very sure that climate change is nothing to worry about.

Seth Wimer, campaign manager for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney, said that Maloney "believes we should be mining more coal, and that it's nothing more than a hoax to think that man has anything to do with global warming."

This summer, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that coastal flooding and more extreme precipitation were strongly linked to human-induced climate change and are expected to get worse in the future.

Scientists said they could have only "low confidence" about the historic link between hurricanes and climate change. But, the report said, it's likely that heavy rainfall associated with hurricanes will become more intense.

"A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events," the IPCC report concluded.

Emissions from coal-fired power plants are among the largest sources of global-warming pollution, and scientists have recommended swift cuts in carbon dioxide emissions to avoid the worst consequences of climate change.

In response to the Gazette's question, Democrat Sue Thorn, who is trying to unseat McKinley in the state's 1st Congressional District, said West Virginia needs to "develop safe methods of extracting and utilizing fossil fuels, new ways to increase our current energy efficiency, as well as the efficiency and availability of renewable energy systems.

"Such a transition to a smart grid and a replenishable, never-ending supply of energy will not only mean a slower warming of our planet, but also tremendous job opportunities in construction and energy production for our state and nation well into the future of our kids and grandkids," Thorn said. "The question for us in West Virginia is whether we take a lead in determining our future or leave our future for others to determine for us."

Bob Henry Baber, a Mountain Party candidate running against Manchin, urged West Virginians to help fight climate change by increasing their energy conservation efforts.

"I challenge all of us, myself included, to exercise more, buy less, consolidate trips, turn off the lights, recycle, purchase low-consumption appliances, take advantage of passive solar heat in construction, adjust our thermostats, and quit wasting food and water," Baber said.

Jesse Johnson, the Mountain Party candidate in the governor's race, said, "I'm the only gubernatorial candidate who believes in climate change" and that "the new weather patterns that is has produced are exacerbated by man."

"The time is now for West Virginia to step into a leadership position as a government of, for and by the people," Johnson said. "Government regulates business and enhances its ability to provide for the common good of the people."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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