Climate change experts from Duke, Colorado, Georgia and Michigan step in

After three years in office, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear has become accustomed to holding press briefings on weather disasters.

In February 2020, heavy rain caused flooding in central and eastern Kentucky and mudslides in eastern Kentucky, raising the Cumberland and Kentucky rivers to their highest levels in decades. In an essay lamenting suffering, Kentucky author Silas House wrote residents of a Harlan County trailer park having to escape rising waters with ‘only clothes on their backs and their babies on their hips’, hundreds of homes damaged and the governor declaring a state of emergency .

In February 2021, the worst flooding in at least six decades inundated central and eastern Kentucky, causing landslides and numerous water rescues.

In December 2021, the deadliest tornado outbreak in state history killed 80 people. One of the tornadoes blasted its ground path more than 165 miles across multiple states and was up to half a mile wide as it swept through western Kentucky.

Thursday, as images and videos of the gruesome nature of the catastrophic floods in the mountainous valleys of eastern Kentucky broadcast on social media and national news, Governor Beshear recited the details of the latest disaster as he knew them: some counties were half under water, the deaths had reached 35 and rising, the flooding was the worst he had seen in Kentucky in his 44 years of life.

Then he said this:

“I wish I could tell you why we keep getting hit here in Kentucky. I wish I could tell you why areas where people maybe don’t have much keep getting hit and losing everything. “I can’t tell you why, but I know what we’re doing in response. And the response is all we can. These are our people. Let’s make sure we help them.”

The response on Twitter was quick.

Some of his supporters have embraced Beshear, a Democratic governor, for what has become one of his trademarks and strengths as he prepares for a tough re-election battle in 2023 in public state appearances otherwise dominated by Republicans where he displays a degree of empathy. worthy of former President Bill Clinton.

But others on Twitter were quick to attack him, saying the answer to “why” was obviously climate change, an issue the governor rarely discusses. Its statewide energy plan, for example, does not include any mention of the words “climate change”, although he speaks passionately about two new manufacturing projects plants for electric vehicle batteries, to be built along the Interstate-65 corridor south of Louisville.

Beshear is one of the most popular Democratic governors of the country, with some polls giving him a 60 percent approval note.

But he’s also politically hemmed in by the supermajority of Republicans controlling the Kentucky General Assembly. They are antipathetic to the climate crisis in a state where Republicans and Democrats have long supported coal mining and coal burning as part of state identity, even as Kentucky cuts jobs in the coal mines for decades.

“Given his narrow margin of victory in the last election and the importance of the coal industry to the state, I just don’t think he can afford to mention climate change,” he said. Melissa Merry, a political science professor at the University of Louisville whose research area includes environmental politics. “It will make him an easy target for his political opponents.”

Beshear defeated incumbent Matt Bevinan unpopular Republican, by just around 5,000 votes in 2019.

Merry said, “Beshear, like other Dems, has incorporated some environmentally friendly priorities into its program, such as building infrastructure for electric vehicles.” But, she added, “He won’t call it a solution to climate change or suggest in any way that it threatens the status quo of doing things, politically or economically.”

Dewey Clayton, another University of Louisville political science professor, said of Beshear, “He’s crippled in a lot of ways.”

The state legislature took away some of the governor’s powers, Clayton said, but he added, “Andy is an uncontroversial guy,” and it seems to be working for him, given his favorable poll results.

Another southern governor, Roy Cooper of North Carolina, driven in large part by his state’s experience with devastating hurricanes, was able to present a climate program even though its legislature is also controlled by Republicans. But Clayton describes North Carolina as “more progressive” than Kentucky, with an evolving electorate as newcomers settle in the search triangle around Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, and the Charlotte metropolitan area. rapidly growing and increasingly diverse.

Beshear’s media office declined to comment. But The Courier Journal in Louisville reported On Friday, the governor said he believed climate change was real and was causing more severe weather.

“Having said that, I don’t know about this one, and whether or not it’s related. And I don’t want to belittle or politicize what these people are going through,” the Courier Journal quoted Bashear as saying.

On Friday, with extreme weather making headlines seemingly everywhere – drought and fire in California, deadly floods in St. Louis, a heat wave in Europe – and a vast expanse of valleys and troughs under the East Kentucky, Inside Climate News went to four top climate scientists and asked them how they would answer Beshear’s question about “why are we continuing to be affected here in Kentucky.”

Here is what they said:

Jonathan Overpeck, professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan

“It is now clear to climatologists that human-caused climate change has significantly warmed the atmosphere and that this warmer atmosphere can – and often – contains more moisture. So when it rains, it can rain harder and more intensely.

“That means the risk of flooding is increasing dramatically over much of the planet where people live, and Kentucky is one of those places. The evidence is clear that climate change is a growing problem for Kentucky and the surrounding region – more flooding like this week, and more flooding when wetter tropical storms head north over the state.

“Kentucky also had a taste of dangerously high temperatures earlier in the week, and not too long ago the state was ravaged by tornadoes. Heat waves are clearly becoming more dangerous and deadly due to human-caused climate change, and there is growing evidence that thunderstorms are also supercharged by the warming atmosphere, which can mean higher tornado risks.

“My heart goes out to the people of Kentucky who have been impacted by the worsening climate crisis in so many ways, and the Governor must recognize that there is more than he and his fellow politicians can do to stop this worsening climate. crisis.”

Marshall Shepherd, professor and director of the atmospheric science program at the University of Georgia

“The attribution literature is clear on some extremes. Climate change DNA is increasingly found in today’s heatwaves, rainstorms and droughts. In a nutshell, weather naturally variable is stimulated the same way baseball players did in the age of steroids Natural variability and anthropogenic climate change occur together It’s not one or the other .

Drew Shindell, professor of earth sciences at Duke University

“I have some sympathy for (Gov. Beshear) being in a difficult position. But he’s doing the citizens of Kentucky no favors by gilding the truth and somehow making it look like we can’t say the “why,” we can just say, “Oh, that’s a sad thing, and we should try to improve the lives of these people.

“We’ve had hurricanes in North Carolina, and these are more powerful because of climate change. Heat waves are stronger and more likely and last longer due to climate change. And the same with this kind of flooding. It’s extremely well known that the “why” is because we’re pumping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, mostly carbon dioxide and methane, we’re making the planet hotter, and a hotter planet has conditions more extreme weather. This is the kind of thing we’ve been planning for decades. We have seen this happen now, because of our inability to control emissions.

“We know exactly why this stuff is happening more often to people across the United States, in red states and blue states. And that won’t solve the problem by pretending that we don’t know the cause. We know the cause. And that is the use of fossil fuels.

Scott Denning, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, Colorado State University

“Why are these types of massive rainstorms and floods happening more often than before? By definition, it is climate change. Climate change is a difference in weather statistics. So the rain on a given day in a given place is the weather. Horrible flooding trends is climate change.

“But in Kentucky, and not just in Kentucky but pretty much everywhere east of the Mississippi, there’s this dramatic increase in the number of these extremely heavy rains. It’s climate change. You know, it’s not even controversial. No attribution is required.

“Now why is this happening. It’s because we’re setting the carbon on fire. And that adds to the heat-holding capacity of the earth. And it raises the temperature and there are all these ripple effects. So, unfortunately, it’s going to get worse and worse, until we stop making it worse.

“And by that, I mean, we have to stop setting fire to carbon. Complete stop.”

Inside climate news is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy and the environment.

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