From coal to clean energy: an Iraq war veteran's next fight

Coal mining is scarring West Virginia. Climate change is intensifying the national security threat. One Iraq war vet explains why US energy policy must change.

As a captain in the Army, I was used to seeing the blasted, wasted landscapes of unfamiliar countries. From the window of a plane or the door of a helicopter, they were a familiar sight, the last high-level view before descending into a nasty fight. 

I expected such images of destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. But not in West Virginia

Yet the ugly reality of mountaintop removal coal mining is what greeted me on my return home after a year-long tour in Iraq. Seeing the land I fought to protect being abused in such reckless fashion hit me in the gut, hard. It took years to recover my motivation to continue to fight for what I believe in back home. 

Appalachian families are facing serious decisions about their future, and these decisions are intimately linked with America’s future. 

Our energy policy is limiting our global competitiveness, hurting our national security, and destroying our heritage of wild, natural beauty. We need comprehensive energy and climate legislation to ensure our  way of life this century. 

These national priorities are acute in my home state. Demand for southern West Virginian coal is expected to drop by half over the next decade, yet our political and business leadership refuse to take a serious look at how we can replace the jobs that will be lost. 

To maintain a relevant position in the energy economy, West Virginia must look beyond our short horizon of trying to fill up the next train load, and think about what will happen if we don’t push harder for economic diversification. The 30-plus years of decline we have experienced will merely accelerate. As the world moves on to cleaner energy sources, we will be left behind with a wounded land, a wounded people, and wounded pride, battle scars from a lost war. 

I came home to an America full of cars with “Support our Troops” bumper stickers. Real support would entail sacrifices, because so long as we’re addicted to foreign fossil fuels, our soldiers will be called on to safeguard supply routes. Additionally, the oil money we send to foreign dictators every day is directly funding the terrorists we are fighting against. All of this means more brave men and women losing life and limb overseas. 

Climate change is intensifying the national security threat. The Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense and State Departments agree that climate change presents risks that must be dealt with. 

The Pentagon’s just-released Quadrennial Defense Review for the first time ever recognizes climate change for the destabilizing force that it is. With increased droughts, famines, and migrations, we should remember that it is our soldiers who will be called upon to help these people in their need, and to respond with force to the terrorist havens that often arise in the wake of failed states. The burden will fall on America – and disproportionately on West Virginia. 

This fight is not new. It has raged through our mountains for decades. In the Mine Wars of the early 20th century, workers organized and took a stand against the coal companies whose only goal was to expand their bottom lines at the expense of the people of our state. Hundreds of miners, soldiers, and corporate thugs lost their lives in a struggle over a worker’s right to an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s labor. 

Today’s fight is similar: King Coal would have us believe that as coal goes, so goes West Virginia; that our worth as a people is to be measured by what we can rip from the ground and sell to the highest bidder; that we are indeed a 21st-century Company State, bought and paid for with our destroyed heritage. 

This is wrong. 

Setting the right course is worth fighting for. We need a price on carbon to eliminate the financial uncertainty that is preventing investment in clean-energy technologies. Such investments are crucial to drive future growth in today’s fledgling industries. Additionally, we should call for an aggressive national renewable portfolio standard to create demand in the short term, which is the best option to drive down energy costs for consumers. 

Now is the time to honor the sacrifices of our miner heritage. We are at a tremendous crossroads, and taking these steps is the right thing to do to honor our past, and the right thing to do for tomorrow. Let’s work for a better future that gives West Virginians – and all Americans – the freedom to thrive in a new energy economy rather than slowly dying with the old. 

I believe in you, West Virginia. Strap on your boots and fight with me. 

Jon Gensler, a former Army captain who served in the Iraq war, is studying for master’s degrees at Harvard Kennedy School and MIT Sloan School of Management.


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