We are climate organizers in two different parts of Kentucky. This week, Eastern Kentucky was devastated by flooding, just seven months after the deadliest tornadoes in state history hit western Kentucky. Our state has a reputation as the heart of the coal industry, represented by the likes of Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, politicians who have enriched themselves while our communities drown under the weight of storms, pollution, poverty, and a lack of decent jobs in any industry that isn’t coal.
But there’s another side of Kentucky that isn’t as well known: people who see how the climate is changing and people who believe in their own power to help each other when the government doesn’t do its basic job.
Last fall, we both spent four months as canvassers organizing with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC) to understand how the climate crisis is affecting people in urban areas, rural communities, and remote hollers that have been washed out by floods. We weren’t judgmental in these conversations – we just wanted to hear people’s stories and experiences.
The people we talked to spanned from Bowling Green, to Hazard, to up around Louisville. They know that the tornadoes and flooding we’ve seen is more extreme and more dangerous than anything they’ve experienced before. And there’s no real doubt it’s caused by climate change. Nearly 70% of the people interviewed in the project are very concerned about climate change.
Kentuckians know that climate change is fueling these storms, but politicians in charge aren’t doing anything to protect us. It makes us feel hopeless, as if the people that we elected don’t represent us. The Kentuckians we talked to realize that coal mining has contributed to climate change. At the same time, our elected officials have trapped us in a fossil fuel system, lining their campaigns with money from extractive industries, all while refusing a just transition to clean, renewable energy. Their inaction prevents our communities from having options outside of coal and leaves us to suffer when we experience devastating weather events.
But things are changing. In Eastern Kentucky, people are coming together in the face of repeated storms and poor infrastructure. Many of the hollers don’t have public sewage, so homes use sewage tanks that wash sewage into floodwaters. This is a well-known problem, and KFTC met with local officials about flooding risks last year. Because yet again, people were trapped in their homes, some as long as a week, when they couldn’t swim or wade to safety through polluted water. So neighbors brought in boats and off-roading equipment and even built bridges to get their neighbors out. Eastern Kentuckians are taking action.
In Bowling Green, we started a mutual aid organization, Rise and Shine, just before the tornadoes hit in December. During disaster response, we filled gaps that even emergency responders didn’t know were there. We organized meal trains, distributed donations from across the country, and provided small amounts of financial assistance to people who were denied relief – often families who were low-income, BIPOC, and undocumented. There are still hundreds of families across western Kentucky that have been displaced from their homes and are currently living in poverty, with some not able to receive government assistance until another six months from now.
We’re proud to live in communities where people help each other in such deep ways. But it shows that “community care” is what’s holding Kentucky together – and it’s hanging by the threads. There’s a deeper rebuilding that needs to happen, and we feel that we can’t rely on our government to do it. We desperately need to divest from fossil fuels and false climate solutions. We need statewide climate-related trauma and harm reduction programs. We need homes that are affordable and resilient. And we need politicians to understand that everyone deserves to live in dignity.
We want to see Congress pass long-term funding for Kentucky that will help us rebuild a more resilient housing and emergency infrastructure. Our elected leaders – like Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul – should be doing everything in their power to make these funds available to help people, quickly. We desperately need investment in jobs and community development that creates options for people to take care of their families outside of the fossil fuel industry.
We’re climate organizers because we want to be part of a movement in Kentucky that’s being led by young, diverse people, working class people, and grassroots organizations, who care about people and their real struggles. It’s inspiring to see regular Kentuckians serve each other in the face of the terrible consequences of climate change. We need our government and elected officials to do the same.
Daisy Carter moved to Kentucky after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina. She is the founder of the Rise and Shine mutual aid group and was a climate crisis deep canvasser for Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. She lives in Bowling Green.
Olivia Harp has been on the front lines of climate issues since 2016. Working with groups like Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition, Olivia lives in Hazard, KY and served as a climate crisis deep canvasser with KFTC in 2021.