Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I was one of the lucky ones. I was one of the ones who didn’t have a family member actively working in the mines. I didn’t know first-hand the effects of black lung on a loved one. I wasn’t exposed to arsenic or mercury in my water. I know of very few Appalachians who can claim the same.
Throughout Eastern Kentucky, a single story pervades from hollow to hollow: that of extraction. The mountains known for their longevity are carved open, their contents visible from the highways slicing through them. Mountaintops are removed, coal the sole priority. This destruction of the land is just as detrimental to the people as it is to Earth. In addition to impacts on their health, the communities supported by extractive industries feel harshly the boom-and-bust cycles associated with fossil fuels.
Thirty years ago, these same industries admitted there were thirty years left in coal. But three decades have come and gone and no preparations have been made for the transition away from this fossil fuel. Industry promises turned to excuses turned to outright denial and, ultimately, to absence. The fossil fuel industry has simply fled, leaving communities devoid of jobs, their stoic resilience wavering.
I found the Sunrise Movement by chance, through a video in my Twitter feed that had me immediately engaged. For too long, the environmental movement has been characterized by conservation of natural places and preservation of natural resources, aspirations that are not always attainable in communities where land equates to livelihood.
The Sunrise Movement, however, has not fallen prey to the traditional trappings of the environmental movements of the past. Fueled by youth engagement across the nation, the movement uplifts the voices of those historically excluded from the conversation to ensure that climate change is not simply seen as an environmental crisis, but as an economic crisis and a public health crisis as well.
The movement has expanded the climate change conversation and it has given me an unprecedented sense of hope. More importantly, it is has created an opportunity for those who want to ensure the future of the planet, but who also come from communities that are dependent on natural resource extraction, to align themselves with environmentalism.
People like me.
When I heard that my own Senator, Mitch McConnell, was planning to rush the vote on the Green New Deal earlier this year in an effort to quash it, I was immediately enraged. The Green New Deal is the first suggestion of a national policy built around the understanding that mitigating climate change and ensuring economic opportunity are not irreconcilable goals. The resolution aspires to a just transition, one that includes sustainable jobs and workforce education, and the complete transformation to renewable energy that Eastern Kentuckians have long called for. It is not, as Mitch McConnell implied, a proposal from the out-of-touch Democrats in New England to hurt Kentucky families.
And so I travelled to DC, joined by constituents from across the state of Kentucky and Sunrise members from across the nation to confront McConnell, to ask him to look me in the eyes and explain why he was playing games with my generation’s future. This was my second trip to Washington — I’d travelled there a few months earlier to join hundreds of other students pushing for the Green New Deal, my first foray into environmental activism. By the time I found myself in McConnell’s office, I was firmly entrenched in the movement.
I don’t come from a Democratic state, which means my representatives aren’t known for their support of climate action. But the climate crisis shouldn’t be a partisan issue. I call upon all politicians to honor the democratic process and relinquish their partisan divides and make the decision to support people, not corporations. I call upon all politicians to provide opportunities for marginalized communities, to seize the chance to mitigate the effects of climate change on poverty and health, and to provide the hope of a livable future for me, for my community, and for the other 43 million people under the age of 25 in the United States. We are the future. Make sure we can live up to our potential.
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