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National Climate Assessment Finds West Virginia Lags Behind

The comprehensive report found that the state has taken among the fewest climate adaptation and mitigation actions of all the states and is just one of three states whose carbon intensity of their economies increased from 2010 to 2021.

A new edition of what's considered the definitive document on how global warming affects the country has found West Virginia lagging behind most other states in actions addressing climate change impacts.

The National Climate Assessment found West Virginia has taken the fewest climate adaptation and mitigation actions in the 12-state northeastern region and among the fewest such actions nationwide.

The assessment, the United States government's nonpartisan, congressionally mandated report released at least once every four years, factored in state-level and city-level actions.

Released Tuesday, the report observed increases of 32 percent and 14 percent in state-level and city-level adaptation and mitigation actions, respectively, since 2018.

The report notes that global warming experienced over the industrial era "unequivocally" results from greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities — mainly the burning of fossil fuels. The U.S. Global Change Research Program, a federal program required by Congress to coordinate federal research and investments in scrutinizing environmental impacts, released the report.

Gov. Jim Justice, a coal magnate and 2024 U.S. Senate candidate, has questioned the scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activity.

The current rate of decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions isn't enough to meet national and climate commitments or goals, the report notes.

National net greenhouse gas emissions must fall by more than 6 percent annually on average, reaching net-zero emissions around midcentury, to hit current national mitigation targets and international temperature goals, the report notes. The nation's greenhouse gas emissions fell by less than 1 percent on average between 2005 and 2019, according to the report.

The assessment notes accelerating deployment of renewable energy and other zero- and low-carbon energy options can fast-track the transition to a decarbonized economy and elevate the likelihood of meeting a 2050 national net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target for the U.S.

Climate change costs to society have grown significantly costlier in recent decades amid increasingly extreme weather events. The report notes the U.S. experienced one inflation-adjusted billion-dollar disaster every four months in the 1980s. Now there's one every three weeks on average.

The U.S. experienced 89 billion-dollar events between 2018 and 2022, with extreme events costing close to $150 billion each year in what the report called a conservative estimate not accounting for loss of life or health care-related costs.

West Virginia leaders have rejected opportunities to accelerate decarbonization, throwing their weight behind a coal industry whose decline has prompted plant and mine closures that have slashed local tax revenues and left communities reeling.

West Virginia is one of just three states whose carbon intensity of their economies increased from 2010 to 2021, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration data.

In 2015, West Virginia lawmakers repealed the state's renewable portfolio standard, becoming the first state to do so. West Virginia had established the standard in 2009. The move erased a requirement for energy producers to increase their amounts of alternative fuel use.

In 2021, the West Virginia Public Service Commission set aside concerns from renewable energy and ratepayer advocates to approve federally required environmental upgrades estimated to cost $448.3 million to keep three American Electric Power-controlled power plants open past 2028.

Retiring one of those plants, the Mitchell Power Station in Marshall County, in 2028 could have saved West Virginia customers $27 million annually from 2029 to the end of its company-projected lifespan in 2040, according to Appalachian Power and Wheeling Power filings with the commission.

But the PSC contended its decision was the most affordable option for state ratepayers, citing AEP testimony indicating Appalachian Power would have to pay $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion for replacement capacity at the Amos and Mountaineer plants, of which $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion would be allocated to West Virginia customers.

The National Climate Assessment notes some communities carry a greater risk of negative impacts from climate change due to social and economic inequities prompted by discrimination and underinvestment. Low-income communities and communities of color frequently lack access to sufficient flood infrastructure, green spaces, safe housing and other assets guarding against climate effects.

A 2021 study by First Street Foundation, a Brooklyn, New York-based nonprofit that quantifies climate risks, found more than half of West Virginia's critical infrastructure — including fire, police and power stations — was at risk of becoming inoperable due to flooding. West Virginia's share of critical infrastructure at risk of being inoperable due to flooding was higher than any other state's.

Much of West Virginia contends with socioeconomic vulnerabilities like low income and high unemployment rates, according to EJScreen, a federal mapping and screening tool that combines environmental and demographic indicators.

West Virginia counties face increases in projected average annual losses due to flooding of up to 20 percent by 2050 — a daunting possibility since annual average losses already exceeded $20 million in many counties in 2020, per the assessment.

Yet none of the 1,073 sub-applications the Federal Emergency Management Agency received in fiscal year 2022 for grant money through two programs to support mitigation measures that reduce disaster losses were from West Virginia, according to FEMA data.

The agency says the data were derived from a grants management system that began accepting Flood Mitigation Assistance and Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities sub-applications in fiscal year 2020.

The former program is a competitive program that provides funding to states and local governments for projects that reduce or erase the risk of repetitive flood damage to buildings that have federal flood insurance. The latter program supports states and localities with projects aimed at reducing disaster and natural hazard risks.

The West Virginia Emergency Management Division has been an applicant for past projects. Division spokesperson Lora Lipscomb said communities face challenges in meeting Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities grant requirements due to program priorities emphasizing nature-based solutions, climate resilience and adoption and enforcement of the latest published editions of building codes.

Lipscomb said in an email Wednesday the Emergency Management Division "remains committed to promoting and educating communities" about FEMA hazard mitigation aid opportunities. Lipscomb said the agency is working with interested applicants to facilitate project application development, expecting viable Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities applications to be submitted in the current grant cycle.

The National Climate Assessment isn't fatalistic in its look ahead to the future, emphasizing that actions taken now to speed up net emissions reductions can lower risks to current and future generations.

The report calls for expanding renewable energy, reducing emissions of short-lived climate pollutants such as methane and ozone, and prioritizing job creation and training for displaced fossil fuel workers while addressing racial and gender disparities in energy workforces.

"An equitable and sustainable US response to climate change has the potential to reduce climate impacts while improving well-being, strengthening resilience, benefiting the economy, and, in part, redressing legacies of racism and injustice," the assessment said.

(c)2023 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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