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Up for debate: How to protect W.Va. from climate change without hurting its economy

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin has apparently succeeded in pushing some climate measures out of a big budget bill. Most Democrats want that plan to reshape U.S. sources of electricity, but they need the vote of the Democratic senator from a coal state. Angie Rosser is following all of this. She is the executive director of a nonprofit called the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. Good morning.

ANGIE ROSSER: Good morning, Steve. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Good to hear you from West Virginia. What do you think of your senator's approach?

ROSSER: Well, I think a lot of it is understandable. I mean, when you're thinking about climate and energy transitions and emission reductions, that's complicated work here. We've got a coal-dependent economy. Historically, we have a lot of communities just enwrapped in coal culture. So talking about climate solutions, it's a very touchy subject, and people can get quite defensive because we're talking about an affront to people's way of life and livelihoods and jobs and being able to put food on the table.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you said coal culture because isn't it correct that there really are only a few thousand coal jobs left in West Virginia? Most people aren't dependent on coal jobs, but people think about it.

ROSSER: That's correct. I mean, it's embedded in our identity. And it's true that coal jobs have been on the decline for some time. This is not a new phenomenon. But we are at a crossroads about thinking what our future is going to look like here. And I think there's some acceptance, growing acceptance - it can't look like what it has in the past.

INSKEEP: Oh, now, that's interesting because, of course, the coal industry is declining regardless of what the government may or may not do. But what about the flip side of this climate change? Do people see and feel effects of climate change in their own lives in the state where you are?

ROSSER: Well, I mean, I think so. Just watching the weather - and West Virginia is one of the highest states prone to flooding, and we've seen that increase in recent years. Certainly right here in my community, we had a deadly flood, and five years after that, we're still recovering. We still don't have a grocery store or basic amenities and maybe never will. And when I think about increased flooding and look at some of the newer flood plain maps, it's hard to imagine how we will continue to be able to recover from increased floods and the cost of that. Now, when you extend the flooding reality to a discussion on climate change, that gets a little more tricky.

INSKEEP: I'm just thinking of the geography of West Virginia - a very mountainous state. You've got a lot of towns that are in valleys, along rivers, right by the water.

ROSSER: That's right. That's where our towns are. That's where our roads are. I mean, if you look around on either side of the road I live on, there's nowhere to go but straight up. So it's not a simple solution just to move people, relocate people. We have to do everything we can to try to prevent the effects of flooding. And climate action is, in my view, going to have to be a part of that.

INSKEEP: Well, if it's going to have to be a part of that - we've just got a few seconds left - if you had a sentence of advice to give Joe Manchin, your senator, what would it be?

ROSSER: Well, I think we have to be responsive to the science. We're under a scientific imperative that we have to reduce emissions in half by 2030. We have to show the world that we are leading on climate so the rest will follow. And it's up to him. It's in his hands.

INSKEEP: Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. Thanks so much.

ROSSER: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "EXPLORE, BE CURIOUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.